Runaway trolley problem


The runaway trolley problem is where there is a runaway train headed to run over and kill four people who are tied to the tracks. However, you are next to a lever, and if you pull that lever, the train will be diverted to a different track, where only one person is tied to the track. If you do nothing, then surely four people will die, but the one person can be easily untied and he will be saved. If you pull the lever, then that one person will surely die, but you will save the other four. Most people will say it is better to pull the lever because having one person die is better than having four people die.
But let’s consider an analogous scenario where there are four patients where each one is in desperate need of a different organ transplant. Each one will die very soon without the required organ. There is a highly skilled transplant surgeon right there, but there are no organs available. And it is sure that they will not be able to find these organs in time to save the four patients. The surgeon has a perfect record of transplanting the organs in question successfully. The four patients will surely live if the doctor can find the organs. OTOH, there is a young man sitting in the waiting room and it turns out that he has the correct blood type and the four healthy organs necessary for the transplant. But if these organs are taken from his body, he will surely die. Should the surgeon then save the four people by taking the organs from the young man who is sitting in the waiting room? His intention is not to kill the one young man, but to save four desperate people who are in immediate need of transplant surgery. Unfortunately, though, the one young man will surely die as the doctor removes his organs to perform the transplant and save the other four.
Most people will say that the doctor should not kill the one young man in order to save the other four.
What is the difference between the two scenarios?
Why is it permissible to kill one person and save four in the first or runaway trolley scenario but not in the second or transplant scenario?


All you cite as justification for either decision is the amount of people who agree with it. Therefore your ending question has an unjustified assumption built in.

I will take a 3rd option, no murder whatsoever.


The difference is that the man on the table owns the organs, they are a part of him and they are him. The five people tied to the track are victims of manipulation that can be corrected.

My basic problem with thought experiments is that they are too “dualistic.” This or that. One or two. Reality is nothing like that. In a runaway trolley, you still try and save everyone. You may fail, but you try.


Another difference that makes the two scenarios not analogous is that in the trolley scenario, all five people are in a position where they are already in mortal danger. In scenario 2, the waiting room guy is healthy and in no danger at all.

To improve the analogy, you’d need to change scenario 1 to be four people tied to the track vs. one un-endangered guy walking past the track and you’ve decided you can grab him, toss him down on the track, and use his body to stop the train before it gets to the other four. And you probably won’t find many saying that’s a permissible choice.


Not sure because if you don’t pull the lever, the single man on the other track will be able to be untied and escape. So as it stands, he is in no danger, unless you pull the lever.


I don’t justify either scenario. I am just reporting on what I read in different places. In the first scenario, you either pull the lever or you don’t. There is no third alternative. possible.


You’re confusing danger with actual physical damage.

Being tied to a track with a runaway train coming down the track, which is going to go either your way or the other depending on the whims of a stranger, is certainly being in danger. If you were that guy, would you feel safe? As safe as the healthy guy sitting in the waiting room? Of course not. Your scenario 1 has put five people in mortal danger with absolutely nothing they can do to get themselves out of it. All five are rightfully fearing for their lives. Who/how many are killed is out of their control.

This is why you’re seeing different answers to the two scenarios. In scenario 1, all five are in mortal danger, so people find it easier to say “Well, some of the five are sure to die, so let’s choose the fewest number.” But you get pushback on scenario 2 from most people because one of the five is safe and fine and you’re suggesting we forcibly sacrifice his life for the others. The discord in the answers comes from the non-analogous situations you’ve presented.


Actually, he is also in mortal danger, just as everyone is in mortal danger all the time. For example, the news reported today that Los Angeles is in mortal danger of a rank 8 earthquake. Now in Mexico, they had a 7 earthquake and 200 people died. How many people would die in Los Angeles in a rank 8 earthquake? And there are many other mortal dangers facing people everyday such as hurricanes, tornadoes, auto accidents, terrorists, sinkholes, water shortages, etc. .


There is no third alternative. possible.

That is a matter of opinion. How about leaving the lever midway? Or trying to stop the trolley?

Actually, he is also in mortal danger, just as everyone is in mortal danger all the time.

And that is a stretch.

This thread is a prime example of why sophomore pop philosophy is generally ignored by older people with more experience. To quote Captain Kirk, " I don’t believe in a no win scenario."


This hypothetical scenario is set up so that there is no third alternative. A lot of people will try to get out of answering this hypothetical moral question by inventing alternative scenarios which are not permitted by the problem. They might talk about Captain Kirk etc. and invent a different scenario and having invented a different scenario will answer what they would do in the different scenario. For example, they will say oh, but I would jump on the train and apply the brakes and stop the train so that no one would be hurt. But by doing so, you have neglected to talk about the case where the brakes are out and it is not possible to jump onto the train, which is the case under discussion here.

A lot of people will try to get around the problem and not answer the question posed. This is one example of such an attempt. The lever is either engaged or not. The train will either kill the four people or it will kill only the one person on the other track. It is like pushing a button for a bell. The bell will ring or not depending on whether you have pushed the button or just touched it. So there is no getting around the problem by saying you will only pull the lever midway.


Philosophy is supposed to be the love of wisdom, not ignorance. When a hypothetical situation is absurd, it is not wrong to point out its unreality. I know the trolley thought experiment is a classic, which is why it is popular in Philosophy 101, but it is not real. If it can be so easily “gotten around” maybe there is a reason for that.

I guess the bottom line is that I reject the existence of such a premise. Wisdom is gained more with age, not impossible scenarios. That is why Socrates was the Father of Philosophy and most university professors play these games in lieu of teaching.


Okay, sorry, but the previous answers have all missed the mark. The problem with your conundrum between these morality questions is that they are NOT analogous… not that a patient is safe, or owns their organs, or any such thing.

The difference between the two scenarios is that the objective action of pulling a train lever is not intrinsically wrong, while murdering an unsuspecting victim to harvest their organs is objectively morally disordered behavior.

That’s the second of the three key caveats of the principle of double effect: that the action taken is objectively neutral or good, and never intrinsically disordered. The first criteria is proportionality (aka, I can’t pull the lever if there are 4 people on one track and pulling the lever would result in 10 deaths instead). The last criteria is that I must be intending for the good to happen and not the bad (aka, I can’t be pulling the lever to kill the 1 because my motivation is payback against that guy for stealing money from me). A decision in these cases must pass ALL THREE criteria to be morally valid.

In both of your scenarios, the criteria of proportionality and intent are met, but in the surgeon scenario the objective morality of the act criteria fails inspection, and bars the surgeon from said action. Pulling a train lever, by contrast, is inherently a neutral act, which passes the criteria and allows for action to be taken.

  • The end does not justify the means. Catechism 1753
  • Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. Catechism 1754
  • A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together. Catechism 1760
  • Double effect: it is morally allowable to perform an act that has at least two effects, one good and one bad. This is where an action itself is good and the intended effect is good but the unintended evil effect is not greater in proportion to the good effect. (See Catechism 2263 St. Thomas Aquinas reference.)

Runaway Trolley (the description should read “easily saved” not “easily untied”).

There is no intention to kill anybody and directing the train to one or four rests on comparison of the proportion of unintended evil of one death vs four deaths.

No Transplant:

The organs belong to the one man not the others so they should not be taken from him. Also note that the people to receive the organs will not surely survive but the one harmed will surely die.


The objective act of pulling a trigger on a gun is not intrinsically wrong, so how is that relevant to the question?


The life of the man on the tracks belongs to the one man and not the other four so his life should not be taken from him to save the other four?


A common objection.

You are correct in detail, but pulling a trigger on a gun is only a portion of an act. The act could be target shooting or hunting (acceptable) or murder (not acceptable).

Perhaps my wording was poor: the distinction could have been more clear: people switch trains all the time without moral fault. The act of switching the train is not tied to the fact that there is someone present on the tracks. The act of murder wtih a firearm (intrinsically wrong) is tied to the fact that there is a victim in front of the gun.


What is the difference between the two scenarios?
Why is it permissible to kill one person and save four in the first or runaway trolley scenario but not in the second or transplant scenario?

It is not permissible in the case of the trolley. (Nor in the case of the patient in the waiting room.)

The man tied to the track also owns his own organs, as do the four tied to the other track.

The reason it is not permissible to kill the one in order to save the four is that it is not permissible to commit murder.
The fact, if it is a fact, that four will die unless you murder one, does not make it permissible to murder the one.


People shoot guns all the time without moral fault.


I like this answer. It seems to me to be more consistent logically.


There is no intention to kill anybody and directing the train to one or four rests on comparison of the proportion of unintended evil of one death vs four deaths.

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