The Law of the Trolley Problem

We recently rediscovered and reread Lon Fuller’s classic “Case of the Speluncean Explorers” (via Peter Suber), and in the process of writing up our own response to Fuller, we noticed a possible parallel between this hypothetical case and the famous “Trolley Problem” in the field of moral philosophy. (There are several variants of the problem (see below); we will refer to the standard version in this post.) By way of background, we summarized the facts of Fuller’s fictional case in a previous post; alternatively, here is a simplified account of the cave case (via Wikipedia):

The case involves five explorers who are caved in following a landslide. They learn via intermittent radio contact that, without food, they are likely to starve to death before they can be rescued. They decide that someone should be killed and eaten so that the others may survive. They decide who should be killed by throwing a pair of dice. After the four [remaining] survivors are rescued, they are charged and found guilty of the murder of the fifth explorer.

By comparison, the trolley problem is a moral dilemma that involves a similar numerical calculus, but instead of five explorers trapped in a cave, there are six hapless workmen (five on one track and one on another) and an innocent bystander standing next to a switch or lever where the track divides into two. We restated the standard version of this moral dilemma in a previous paper; here too is the standard set up of the trolley problem (again, via Wikipedia):

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

The question we have is this: are the factual differences in both the cave and trolley scenarios morally or legally relevant? In both cases there is an imminent threat or mortal danger to five human lives, and both cases involve sacrifices, but the relevant decision makers are different in each case. In one case, the persons whose own lives are in danger are able to deliberate and ponder their collective fate. Moreover, they initially agree to sacrifice one member of their party through a random mechanism. In the other case, by contrast, someone external to the danger (the person standing next to the lever) has no time to deliberate. He must make a snap decision and that decision (including the decision to do nothing) will result in the loss of either one or five lives.

In short, is the trolley problem relevant to our legal or moral analysis of the case of the explorers? By way of illustration, let’s transpose the trolley problem to Fuller’s fictional land of Newgarth. (Recall the language of the relevant murder statute in Newgarth: “Whoever shall willfully take the life of another shall be punished by death.”) Putting the ethics of the trolley problem aside (assuming it is even possible to separate morality from law), would the person at the switch in the trolley problem be guilty of murder under this statute if he were to divert the trolley onto the side track? Further, does our answer to this question apply or control the result in the case of the explorers?

Trolley problems …

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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6 Responses to The Law of the Trolley Problem

  1. Pingback: Three theories of necessity (Post 1 of 5) | prior probability

  2. Craig says:

    Another possible solution is that you are the fat man: you switch the trolley to the nearest track and jump in front of it yourself, sparing all others at the expense of your own life.

    • That’s true (similarly, in the case of the explorers trapped in the cave, one of them could volunteer to be sacrificed), but is there a moral obligation for the fat man to do so?

      • Craig says:

        Not a moral “obligation” per se — but perhaps one “could not live with oneself” if one pushed someone else into the path, or switched the track to kill a different person — in that case, one might choose self-sacrifice rather than other actions or positive inactions. Situations like this always bring the movie “Sophie’s Choice” to mind.

      • I never saw “Sophie’s Choice,” so I will add this movie to my must-see list.

  3. Pingback: Necessity as a source of law | prior probability

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