Chapter 19 – Framing the Trolley Problem

Chapter 19 has Chidi presenting the Trolley Problem.  You are driving the trolley and the brakes give out.  If you keep going forward, the trolley will kill five people.  If you turn the trolley, you will kill one person.  In this situation, what should you do?  Note, Chidi actually asks what do you do, but that is the wrong question.  What you end up doing might not be what you should do.  Thus, the actual issue is what you should do.

Michael’s response is that he sees the problem as how do you kill all six people at the same time.  His solution is to go forward to kill the five, but hold a sickle out the side to kill the sixth.  Chidi treats this as the wrong answer and then has Michael write “people are good” ten times.  However, I believe Michael offers us an important insight – the assumptions behind the Trolley Problem.

Michael believes that the morally correct action is killing humans.  Meanwhile, most people accept that the death of humans are a bad thing – at least innocent humans.  These are assumptions brought into the scenario.  If you bring that assumption into the scenario, then you are going to choose to kill one instead of five.  If you have alternative assumptions over what is important, then you will have a different result.  For example, if you think that it killing is worse than letting die, then one could argue that turning the trolley is killing while going forward is letting them die.

The transplant case presents a similar framing issue.  There are five people all in need or a different organ.  Should you harvest the organs from one person to save those five?  Well, is you again assume that the death of humans is a bad thing, then the answer seems to be that you should harvest the organs.  However, if you frame the moral issue differently then you will have a different answer.  For example, Chidi appealed to the Hippocratic Oath to justify not harvesting the organs.  In this case, not breaking a promise is the most important moral consideration.

Thus, I believe that Michael had a legitimate answer to the Trolley Problem.  It is one that is consistent with his value system.  It is no different from the answers that other people give because those people are also assuming their unquestioned value system is correct.  If we want to have the correct answer to the Trolley Problem, then we need a correct answer to what is of value first.