Would you kill one person to save five?

December 10, 2011

Dirty Hands


The experiment begins like this: Imagine it’s a lovely day out, and you decide to go for a walk along the trolley tracks that crisscross your town. As you walk, you hear a trolley behind you, and you step away from the tracks. But as the trolley gets closer, you hear the sounds of panic — the five people on board are shouting for help. The trolley’s brakes have gone out, and it’s gathering speed. You find that you just happen to be standing next to a side track that veers into a sand pit, potentially providing safety for the trolley’s five passengers. All you have to do is pull a hand lever to switch the tracks, and you’ll save the five people. Sounds easy, right? But there’s a problem. Along this offshoot of track leading to the sandpit stands a man who is totally unaware of the trolley’s problem and the action you’re considering. There’s no time to warn him. So by pulling the lever and guiding the trolley to safety, you’ll save the five passengers. But you’ll kill the man. What do you do?

That’s the moral dilemma, called the “Trolley Problem”, posed by a team of Michigan State University researchers in a first-of-its-kind study published in the research journal Emotion. Research participants were put in a three dimensional setting and given the power to kill one person (in this case, a realistic digital character) to save five.

The result? About 90 percent of the participants pulled the hand lever to reroute the trolley, suggesting people are willing to violate a moral rule if it means minimizing harm. “What we found is that the rule of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ can be overcome by considerations of the greater good,” said Carlos David Navarrete, lead researcher on the project. Of the 147 participants, 133 (or 90.5 percent) pulled the switch to divert the trolley, resulting in the death of the one innocent man. Fourteen participants allowed the trolley to kill the five passengers, 11 participants did not pull the switch, while three pulled the switch but then returned it to its original position.

Consider another, similar dilemma. You’re walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm’s reach, between you and the track. He’s large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you’ll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?

This one is a slightly different version of the original “Trolley Problem” and is called the “Fat Man Problem”. Funny as it sounds, this problem has a major distinction to the problem before, even though on the surface, the consequences of both actions are the same: one person dies, five survive. Therefore the result we expect for both experiments should also be the same. But most people, when asked which of the two actions is permissible — pulling the lever or pushing the man onto the tracks — say that the former is permissible, the latter is forbidden. Why is one wrong and another possibly allowable when both result in death?

An explanation for this difference is given by the Doctrine of Double Effect, which was introduced by St. Thomas Aquinas in the late 13th century. This doctrine says that for an act to be morally permissible, it has to fit certain criteria. First of all, the outcome has to be a good one. Both examples in the trolley problem have that — five people survive a terrible accident. Secondly, the outcome has to be at least as important as the action taken. Both examples cover that, too — five lives outweigh one. Thirdly, the action can’t be taken for the purposes of evil, even if it does result in beneficial good. In other words, you can’t pull the lever just because you want to kill the man standing in front of the sand pit. Lastly, the good effect has to be produced by the action taken, not by the bad effect. And here we reach the reason why pulling the switch is preferable to pushing the man onto the tracks. By pulling the lever, we are taking an action that indirectly results in the death of the man on the track. In the second example, we are intentionally pushing the man to his death. Although five people’s lives will still be saved, according to Aquinas (and to many philosophers), an evil act never justifies a greater good.

This idea brings me to the “Dirty Hands Problem” we discussed in class. In both cases the criteria for Dirty Hands are met if the person pulling the handle does something bad in order to do something good. And obviously politicians have to deal with this problem all the time. But the results of the experiments reveal a distinction between killing a person and letting a person die. If we apply this idea to politicians and their version of the Dirty Hands Problem, we can see that many politicians probably would change their decisions when they were forced to do the dirty work on their own, instead of letting other people do it. Maybe the politicians are personally too unaffected from the consequences of their decisions and not accountable for them, so that they unnecessarily engage in too many Dirty Hands cases. What do you think? Would there be more cases of “Dirty Hands” if politicians where more related and concerned with the consequences of their actions and what would you do if you were the person who has to pull the lever?

To have a better understanding of how the experiment conducted by the Michigan State University looks like and for people who want a visual presentation of the “Trolley Problem” visit http://www.cdnresearch.net/vr.htmland and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fs0E69krO_Q

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14 Comments on “Would you kill one person to save five?”

  1. bmazus Says:

    This is a very interesting post. Obviously nobody wishes to ever be in this situation but I believe if I for sure knew that being responsible for one person’s life would save another five lives I would be ok with that. The issue with this scenario is that no matter what you are killing one of the individuals. I do not believe there is a difference between the scenario in which the person is being pushed onto the tracks, or the one in which the lever is being pulled to kill that person. One may feel worse for pushing a person over a bridge to kill them but the truth of the matter is that no matter what you are killing that person.
    Now correlating this with the actions of politicians is a very interesting idea as well. Do I think that a politician who lobbies against pro-choice movements will feel differently if he was the one telling a crying 16 year old teenager that just find out she was pregnant that she must have this baby would feel differently about the causes they support? Without question do I think everything would be different for politicians. This definitely exemplifies one of the main concerns that citizens have for the actions of politicians.

  2. benjishanus Says:

    This author of this post does a great job in forcing his readers to critically think and consider the situation from multiple angles. Personally, I have no idea what I would do in the heat of the moment, as our mind has a tendency of making crazy, inexplicable decisions in these instances (although in this regard, choosing to pull or not pull the trigger can both be easily justified, as well as criticized).

    Having had the chance to really think this one through, I think I would be in line with what most surveyors answered to this agonizing question. All things being equal, I would likely pull the level to save a net total of four lives. However, if it came to myself having to shove another person in harms way in order to save these net four lives, I don’t think I would be able to bring myself to do it. Although the end result would be the same, the means would be quite different. It’s similar to allowing someone to be shot as opposed to shooting the person yourself. Obviously, each scenario is a terrible one, however, shooting someone yourself must be a much different feeling than allowing another person to shoot the person. One act gives off a feeling of much more guilt and accountability than the other, which is ultimately what it may come down to for many people.

  3. phillipschermer Says:

    While I think that there are certainly grounds for valuing the lives of 5 people over the life of one person, I am not completely convinced by this argument. The logic behind this decision is utilitarian in nature. It says that one should do what does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Yet, the theory of utilitarianism has many holes. To highlight one in particular, take the case of Nazi Germany. Arguably, under a utilitarian definition of justice, Hitler’s actions were justified. Yet, I would bet that most people would disagree that Hitler is “just.” I am not proposing that killing one person to save five isn’t justified. I am just suggesting that it isn’t as cut and dry as we might originally assume.

  4. jrmeller Says:

    This is probably the most intriguing post about dirty hands yet, because this is something that is not just related to leaders and politicians, but all citizens. I personally do not know how I could handle a situation knowing that at least one life would be lost. I understand why people asked about this question would say it’s ok to pull a lever but not push a person. By pushing a lever you are merely trying to save the five lives and leaving the rest to fate. YOu would still feel guilty knowing that someone died as a result of an action you did, regardless of how noble it may be. The reason why people would be so hesitant about pushing another human is because that is unquestionably murder. The difference between the two scenarios is that the second has direct intent of taking a life to save 5.
    Personally, I don;t know how i would react in such a situation. Either way a family will lose a member, and it would be on my conscious forever. Excellent point on dirty hands!

  5. lkpeacock Says:

    I think St. Thomas Aquinas’ “evil act never justifies a greater good” view is extremely important to consider in this scenario and in politician’s actions. Personally, I think it would be impossible to pul the lever or push the man in front of the train. What right do I have to knowingly kill a person? Yes, the number five is greater than one, but that does not justify one person’s death. I would not be able to live with that kind of guilt or knowledge of my actions. Also, what is the difference between pushing a man in front of a train or pulling a lever knowing he will die? That is absurd to me.

    Politicians definitely are challenged with decisions that will lead to the greater good. They have strong opinions and views that they do not always have to directly deal with. I think mathematically, it makes sense to save the five people in the scenario. Politicians, a lot of times, believe in what looks good on paper but do not actually put themselves in the shoes of the people they are trying to help. Just because something sounds reasonable does not mean it is best or justifiable.

  6. zrobbins24 Says:

    This is a very interesting post and, truthfully, I hope I never find myself in a situation like this, nor would I wish anyone to be in such a situation. I have a hard time making decisions as it is, and with lives on the line, making a split second decision would be extremely difficult. The results of the experiment, though, make a lot of sense. Pushing the man off of the bridge can be considered a direct act of murder, whereas pulling the lever can be seen as an indirect act of murder, if it is murder at all. By pulling the lever, there is still a slight chance that the man in the sandpit survives, unlike when you push the man off of the bridge.

    However, there is a huge issue of morality in this situation and what a person should morally do. Would it be moral to kill a man by pushing him in front of a train to save five lives? I do not think so. How about if you just pull a lever, but then as a result, one man dies instead of five? This is the big debate. I do not believe that it would be moral, though I would probably pull it because of the chance that they all survive compared to five definitely dying. I do not believe it would be moral because if the situation had occurred when you were not there, the trolley would continue and kill the five workers. Thus, if events were to carry on without any interference, the man in the sandpit would not be affected.

    The Penn State scandal keeps coming to mind when I think about this issue of morality. Though Joe Paterno completed what he was obligated to do (report the issue to higher authority), he finds himself in trouble for not doing the moral thing, which was to do more and contact the police. I believe the same thing can apply here. If you do not pull the lever or push the man, you could still be scrutinized afterwards for not doing the “moral” thing (though I do not believe either is moral) and saving the five lives, even though you were not “obligated” to do anything.

  7. habavol Says:

    This is a really interesting study! And I too believe it follows the case of dirty hands because you’re doing something bad for the greater good, which would be saving more lives. If I were in this situation I have no idea what I’d do. I would feel way to bad to kill anyone in general. Like someone’s death on me would be way to bad, so I mean if there was a way to put myself at risk rather than someone else, I would prefer that, lol.
    I think it’s interesting that you brought up politicians being put in this situation as well. I think they should think about their actions more and the consequences that will happen before they make hasty decisions.

  8. reidmech7892 Says:

    Honestly, this is a lose-lose situation; with this notion, there is no correct answer. Whichever decision you choose, you are committing murder whether it be directly or indirectly, so the only thing to contemplate whether it is worth “saving” 5 or “preventing” 1. In other words, would you rather save 5 people while directly killing another or let 5 people be killed and allow an innocent bystander live. With this in mind, I honestly would choose to let the 5 people crash rather than choosing to switch the track into the sand pit knowing full well that the man would die directly as a result of my own actions. With either decision, it would leave a hefty blow to my conscience. However, I personally think that if I killed someone as a result of my direct actions, I would feel much worse and regretful than simply letting fate take its natural route in letting those on the trolly die while keeping an innocent, unrelated bystander out of harm.

    Ideally, it would be the right thing to save 5 people and kill 1 rather than kill 5 and save 1, however, this circumstance doesn’t allow you to make this call. Instead, this situation asks of you to either let fate take its course or physically and directly cause 5 to live and one to die. I believe it is more admirable to not mess with destiny, which would be to forcefully kill the man to save the 5 people, and rather do nothing, which no one could blame or punish you for, while killing the one man could result in you being charged with murder.

  9. lukeythekid Says:

    First of all, this is a dumb experiment because it was designed by people at Michigan State, but I’ll let that slide.
    This seems like a simple problem – obviously we see a dirty hands problem because you have to live with the responsibility of killing somebody, but it is not really a tough moral choice to make. Killing one person to save five, if you view them all equally and objectively, is a simple math problem. 5-1=4 lives saved, so I cannot think why someone would choose to condemn the five and allow the one to live (once again, assuming objectivity).
    However, I know why the people would decide not to intervene, but it that would be the worst case of dirty hands and pure selfishness: they do not want the responsibility. They do know want to think about the fact that they caused this man’s death, but for some reason they feel as though inaction makes them less guilty than direct action. But their idleness makes them even more guilty, despite their own justifications.
    This problem would be more interesting if we added a new element: what if you knew the one person? This would be a much tougher problem if you had to decide between your one friend and five strangers (or perhaps 100 strangers if that is more appropriate). This situation is seen in many movies, a kind of “save the people or save the girl” scenario, such as when Spiderman has to decide whether to allow MJ or 50 schoolchildren to fall to their deaths (obviously he miraculously manages to do both.) When you consider people’s own emotions, it makes the decision a lot more difficult.

  10. Brian Hall Says:

    If we look at this situation from a position of pragmatism, the two scenarios proposed (fat man and switch) have exactly the same outcomes depending on the individual’s choice. The only difference is that in the fatman problem, one has to actually have the balls to throw someone else in front of a train to their certain death, whereas the trolly problem involves the confounding element of the switch. By pulling the switch, we are allowed the psychological benefit of plausible deniability; the individual can lie to himself and say he was not directly responsible for the man’s death, or that there was room for random chance to take effect and save the man at the last moment.

    The reason there is a difference in the number of responses in the affirmative for each situation is that people are less likely to follow logic than emotions. We like for there to be a buffer between us and our actions so that we don’t have to live with the guilt of what we do, but in the end it doesn’t matter because the result is the same. It takes a very strong willed individual to completely ignore everything besides logic in this sort of extremely intense situation, as killing someone is never easy. The problem is the actual effort needed to push the fat man in front of the train. The physical act of brutally murdering someone is very difficult to reconcile no matter how you look at it, but it’s substantially easier when you don’t actually have to look them in the eye before killing them (like with the switch, or extrapolated, pressing a button to launch a nuke versus shooting someone on the battlefield).

    I would try my best to choose to kill the one over five in each situation, but I’m not certain I would be able to bring myself to actually do it in the second scenario. Luckily, I probably will never have to know.

  11. cobyj17 Says:

    This is a slight distinction, but as you mention, it is a very important one. It really depends on your viewpoint whether or not you can personally justify pulling the lever or pushing the fat man. A consequentialist (or someone who supports dirty hands) would argue that the only thing that matters is the end result, while some would argue that it depends on the actions one takes whether or not they are justified. I think the first scenario allows you to intervene and pull the switch, while the second doesn’t necessarily. In the first scenario, you personally have to actively kill someone, thus you can make the decision between killing 1 or killing 5. In the second scenario, you are not actively killing anyone.

    It is an interesting point you raise about dirty hands. This scenario makes a case for why dirty hands can be beneficial society. The problem one runs into, however, is how much discretion can one person have as to what creates the greatest good for the greatest number? The overall benefit of a government’s decisions are rarely as cut and dried as in the trolley problem. This is where the consideration of human rights becomes important. While it may have a better outcome for one to push the fat man in front of the trolley, it violates his right to life because you are actively killing him. By establishing certain human rights, you give government a framework to evaluate its decisions. I would argue that government should not be allowed to take an action that violates human rights for the outcome which the government thinks is greatest good.

  12. Brandon Baxter Says:

    I do not believe that there is any difference between the two scenarios. In each scenario five people are going to die as fate had intended. And in each scenario you are given the option to change fate and instead kill one person. Touching a lever, or pushing a man is the same exact thing. You are still choosing to condemn that man to death whether it was through direct contact or not. It would be impossible to go to court and argue for a lesser sentence for the person who pushed the lever than actually pushing the man because they are equal in terms of murder.

    The fat man scenario forces someone to confront head on what they are actually about to do. They are actually forcing the man off the bridge with their own hands. The reason it is easier for people to say there is a difference between the two is because of the disconnect. When you are pushing a button you are disconnected from conventional murder as you’ve been raised to know it. But how in the world does that mean that it is not still murder? When someone harasses someone on the internet and pushes them into cutting or suicide is that not bullying? Does the fact that they didn’t touch the kid or shout words to his face, but rather behind a computer screen through the internet, mean it is not bullying? No. It is still bullying.

  13. rmwells3 Says:

    There is a significant difference between the two versions of the same scenario. The trolley situation requires a man to pull a lever which is far easier for human beings to emotionally do than is directly pushing someone in the way of the trolley to save a bunch of lives. I personally, could not deal with the pain and guilt that would come with pushing a man onto the tracks to slow the train down, but i definitely could pull the lever to save 5 lives because of the sort of detachment I would get from the situation. Even more so, the feeling of doing “the greater good” would justify my actions and provide some reassuring emotional comfort to me. However, i find that this “greater good” eventually draws a line. At some point, it truly becomes impossible for someone to save 5 by killing one, at some point, we can no longer justify it because it falls into the category of our conventional definition of murder.

  14. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    Firstly I’d like to say that these examples bring up great points for the problem of dirty hands. I’d like to bring to consideration another question concerning the “Fat Man Problem.” Its definitely very understandable that most people would flinch from the idea of pushing the man onto the tracks themselves. What I wonder is if people would condemn someone if they actually did this.

    If one day you saw on the news that one man had pushed another in front of a train in order to save the lives of five other people, would you think that what he did was wrong and should be punished, or would you accept that he had done it to save more lives? If I saw something like this happen I certainly wouldn’t praise the man or woman that had done it, but it would also be difficult for me to find the man worthy of punishment.

    I suggest that this is part of the problem of dirty hands. Politicians make the difficult, very morally grey decisions like the one in the “Fat Man Problem” so the rest of us don’t have to.

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