Adulting, Ideas and Musings

The Modern Day Trolley Problem – The Loss of Decency

Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a thought experiment that has people grabbling with an ethical issue. And no one has solved it to the majority’s satisfaction.

In a nutshell: You are standing at a lever in a train yard. The lever lets you change the track to go from one direction to another. In one direction, there are five people tied to the track. This is the direction the lever is currently set. In the other direction, there is one person tied to the track. If the train continues on its current direction, five people will die and one will die. If you change the direction of the train by using the lever, one person will die and five will be saved. Do you use the lever to change the direction of the train?

For many people, this version of the experiment may seem obvious. The needs of the many out way the needs of the one.

Let’s change it a bit.

What if the one person was a doctor who saves lives every day?

What if the one person was your own child?

How would that change your answer?

Unless you’re a psychopath, the ethics get murkier. If you choose to change the lever to point toward the doctor, you are potentially condemning an unknown quantity of people to die due to the doctor not being available. If you choose to change the lever to point toward your child, well, I think we can all see the issue with that.

The problem with this experiment is that it sets up the interviewee with an unsolvable problem. There are no good answers. If you change the track, yes, you have subscribed to the maxim “The needs of the many out way the needs of the one.” But you have also actively chosen to condemn another person to die. You pulled the lever. No matter who the one person is.

If you choose to allow the train to continue its route, you are actively choosing not to pull the lever, and so you are condemning five people.

Psychology and business books continually bring up the Trolley Problem without understanding its essence. They try to figure out the correct answer, and they never will.

There is no correct answer.

The problem doesn’t have anything to do with the actual choice. It has to do with the fact that you made the choice. Even if you had no choice but to make a choice, you made it and you must live with the consequences. The families of those who died will not understand. The fatalities due to the doctor dying are on you. If you choose your own child, your family and every other person in the world will judge you. And you will judge yourself. In effect, no matter what you choose, it was the wrong choice.

It’s an impossible choice.

And it’s a terrible choice. It’s torture to force someone to make it. I suspect that versions of it have been enacted in prisoner of war camps. It’s psychological torture. There is no answer because that’s not the point of the question.


A version of the Trolley Problem is being played out today, although in less dramatic ways. Or more dramatic ways, depending on where you are standing or laying.

As a city resident of Seattle, we have a big problem. Our homeless population is expanding at a huge rate. Many homeowners are a job-loss away from becoming homeless. Debt increasing. People who seem prosperous, aren’t. Prices are soaring and as people get nervous, the prices go up even more. Most people are much closer to disaster than they want to admit.

I live on Phinney Ridge, which is a quiet neighborhood. But even so, almost every day, I hear someone going crazy in front of my apartment building. I hear people fighting. Dogs whimpering. This is a quiet neighborhood. Other neighborhoods have it worse. Downtown, people will jump in front of traffic trying to get hit, go after people on the sidewalks, and be really scary. I know people who have been sucker punched suddenly, unprovoked. It’s scary.

People are begging everywhere. And most of the other people just don’t have it in them to help. All the money is tied up, or they’re afraid. So, they face ahead and don’t see the beggars. I get it. It’s self-protection. Plus, is it ethically obligatory to give someone something just because they ask? Especially if you’re not able to?

Out of desperation, the homeless have started to hurt themselves. The one tactic I’ve seen a lot of is falling down. When you go to help, they ask for money. Or they scream at you. Or do some other crazy thing. People are afraid to try and help.

And now we are at the Modern Day Trolley Problem.

Modern Day Trolley Problem

Today we have two conflicting human needs. The first is to be safe. The second is to see ourselves as decent human beings.

Do you help the person who fell?

If you do, you might be putting yourself into a dangerous situation. But if the person actually needed your help, they’ll get it.

If you don’t, you might be marginally safer, but if the person actually needed your help, you could be condemning them, possibly to death.

There is no good answer. But we are forced to make the choice.

From what I’ve seen so far, most people will error on the side of being safe. They will step over bodies or ignore the situation. They tell themselves that someone else will help if needed. The more people who are around, the less likely they are to help (Bystander Effect).

I have a friend whose wife went jogging. She fell in a high traffic area, and it was a long time before anyone stopped to help. People just walked by.

Someone falls and the first thing people wonder is if it’s a real fall or a fake one. They don’t know. So, they move on. I get it. When it comes to safety, you must make decisions. And there may not be a good decision to make.

The Loss of Decency

Because there is no good decision, every decision has its risks. We need to be safe, but we also need to feel that we are decent human beings. Every time we pass by someone who is hurt, we are giving ourselves an example of why we are not a decent human being, even if that’s not what we are intending. We can justify it in our heads, but our hearts know. We made a choice, whether we wanted to or not.

Eventually we may become angry. We want to be decent human beings, but we are not allowed to. The world doesn’t seem to work like that. We are forced to make a hard decision and we are forced to live with the consequences. This anger can fester and eventually we may put the blame outside of ourselves. We might even become cruel to the homeless, or to anyone who reminds us of homelessness.

That is the situation I found myself in.

The washing machine in my building was broken, so I packed up a suitcase and dragged it the mile to the nearest laundromat. I ended up falling, badly. I still can only eat mashed up food due to a jaw injury and the right side of my body isn’t working well. I laid bleeding on the sidewalk, on a low traffic residential street. I couldn’t get up.

A guy was blowing leaves a few houses down. He stopped the leaf blower and looked at me. He started blowing again. Then he stopped and looked at me. Then he went into the house for a while and came back out and looked at me.

I looked at him hoping he would help, but help didn’t come from him. As I tried to figure out how badly I’d hurt myself, a pickup truck stopped and two guys helped me up, gave me water and tissue to stem the blood.

When I finally started moving again, dragging the suitcase, the leaf-blower looked at my bleeding face, smiled, and said “Have a nice day!”

Not only did he not help, but he also mocked me like he thought I was a homeless person after his dollar.

The consequences for this guy are very high. Not only does he have to live with the fact that he’s not a decent person, but also that he actively hurts people. I pity him. I also judge him.

A Decent Person

The problem is that the question of whether we will help or not has messed us all up. The situation has set up an unsolvable problem that leaves us feeling less than human. I get it, I’ve felt the push and pull of that decision and any decision I’ve made usually made me wish I’d made the opposite decision.

It can mess up our future. As we gather evidence of our not being decent people, our perspective changes. If we’re bad people already, why not be really bad? I’ve felt that urge. Many have given into it.

And so goes the decency of the human species.

All because of an unsolvable Modern Day Trolley Problem.

I don’t have an answer for you. The problem is unsolvable. I do know that in the past, I have been leaned toward safety and because of my experience, I’m reconsidering that stance. Sometimes we have to be forced into the other person’s pain to see the truth of ourselves.

What good is safety if I can’t live with myself?

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