Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Thomson's Trolley Problem

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Thomson's Trolley Problem

Article excerpt

NO ONE HAS DONE MORE over the past four decades to draw attention to the importance of, and attempt to solve, a particularly vexing problem in ethics--the Trolley Problem--than Judith Jarvis Thomson. Though the problem is originally due to Philippa Foot, Thomson showed how Foot's simple solution would not do and offered some of her own. (1) No solution is un-controversial and the problem remains a thorn in the side of non-consequentialist moral theory. Recently, however, Thomson has changed her mind about the problem. She no longer thinks she was right to reject Foot's solution to it. I argue that, though illuminating, Thomson's current take on the Trolley Problem is mistaken. I end with a solution to the problem that I find promising.

In sections 1-3, I present Thomson's version of the Trolley Problem (one involving a twist on Foot's original version) and her various responses to it. In sections 4 and 5, I evaluate her various takes on the problem, including her most recent rejection of the problem. In section 6, I offer a diagnosis of the purported data on the basis of which Thomson has mistakenly come to reject the problem. And in section 7, I present and defend my own preferred solution to the Trolley Problem.

1. THE PROBLEM STATED

Foot's version of the Trolley Problem revolves around pairs of cases like these:

Big Man: An out-of-control trolley--the driver is unconscious--is
barreling toward five workmen trapped on the track ahead of it. if
nothing stops the trolley, the five will be run over and killed. A big
man whose weight would stop the trolley before it reaches the five were
he to sacrifice his life by jumping in front of it decides not to.
However, a thin man can push the big man into the path of the trolley.

Driver: An out-of-control trolley is barreling toward five track
workers who are trapped on the track ahead of it. If the driver does
nothing, the five will be run over and killed. The driver cannot stop
the trolley, but he can turn it onto a spur of track to the right, on
which there is another trapped track worker who would be run over and
killed were he to do so.

Foot took it to be obvious that, though the thin man may not push the big man, the driver may turn the trolley. And the problem she took herself to be addressing was why that was the case. After all, in both cases the agent faces the choice of whether to kill one to save five. Her answer was that the cases were importantly asymmetrical: though the thin man lets five die if he does not kill, the driver kills either way. As Thomson puts it: "If the driver fails to turn his trolley, he does not merely let the five track workmen die; he drives his trolley into them, and thereby kills them." (2) And if, as Foot suggested, the following two claims are true,

(I) killing one is worse than letting five die, and

(II) killing five is worse than killing one,

then the solution to her problem was right at hand. As (I) dictates that pushing the big man is worse than not pushing him, pushing the big man is impermissible. But, as (II) dictates that not turning the trolley is worse than turning it, turning it is permissible. Furthermore, Foot argued, this solution comports with our intuitive conviction that negative moral duties--e.g., the duty not to kill--are more stringent than positive moral duties--e.g., the duty to rescue.

Thomson argued that Foot's solution fails. (3) She suggested we consider:

Bystander: An out-of-control trolley--the driver is unconscious--is
barreling toward five track workers trapped on the track ahead of it. A
bystander can either (i) do nothing, in which case the five will die,
or (ii) flip a switch to the right, diverting the trolley onto a
right-hand spur of track away from the five, thereby killing another
track worker who is trapped there.

It is no less morally permissible, Thomson claimed, for the bystander to flip the switch than it is for the driver to turn his trolley in Driver. …

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