The Trolley Problem:

An Intriguing Ethical Dilemma in Modern Context

Welcome to this captivating exploration of the trolley problem—an intricate ethical dilemma that intricately tests our moral compass. Imagine yourself standing at the controls of a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks, confronted with two diverging paths. On one track, there are five innocent individuals helplessly bound, and on the other, a sole person stands in harm's way. The choice rests upon you: do you permit the trolley to continue on its course, leading to the death of five people, or do you divert its path, causing the demise of one individual? This thought experiment, commonly known as the trolley problem, delves deep into the complexities of ethics, decision-making, and the sanctity of human life.

The trolley problem, first formulated by British philosopher Philippa Foot in the 1960s, has evolved into a thought-provoking tool for understanding ethical reasoning. It presents us with a challenging scenario wherein we must make a morally conflicting decision: either act to minimize the overall number of casualties or abstain from taking any action, thereby leading to a greater loss of life.

The trolley problem has been used to explore a variety of ethical theories, including utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Utilitarianism is the theory that the right action is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In the case of the trolley problem, a utilitarian would argue that it is right to pull the lever, because it would save the lives of five people. Deontology is the theory that the right action is the one that follows a set of moral rules. In the case of the trolley problem, a deontologist might argue that it is wrong to pull the lever, because it would involve killing one person. Virtue ethics is the theory that the right action is the one that is characteristic of a virtuous person. In the case of the trolley problem, a virtue ethicist might argue that there is no right or wrong answer, because both pulling the lever and not pulling the lever could be seen as virtuous actions.

The two main variations that manifest the trolley problem

1. The Switch Dilemma: As previously described, this variation entails a choice between two tracks where you can pull a lever to divert the trolley from its current path to another track. This action would save five lives but sacrifice one.

2. The Footbridge Dilemma (the "Fat Man"): In this scenario, you find yourself as a bystander on a footbridge overlooking the trolley track. There are no switches, but you observe a significantly heavy person (hence the "Fat man") standing next to you. Pushing this person onto the tracks would stop the trolley and save five lives, but it would also lead to the death of the large person.

The trolley problem seeks to unravel our moral intuitions and the fundamental principles guiding our decision-making. Are we more inclined to act when it entails actively causing harm to one individual to save many, or do we prefer to abstain from action, even though it results in a greater loss of life?

Here are some authentic examples of the trolley problem:

Contemporary Situation: The Trolley Problem in the Autonomous Vehicle Industry

In recent years, the trolley problem has assumed newfound relevance in the development of autonomous vehicles. With self-driving cars becoming a reality, programmers and engineers face complex ethical decisions that must be encoded into the vehicle's algorithms.


Consider the following contemporary situation:

Picture an autonomous vehicle navigating along a bustling urban road when suddenly, a group of pedestrians, oblivious to the traffic light, begins crossing the street. The vehicle's sensors detect the pedestrians, and it is confronted with a dilemma: either swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid hitting the pedestrians, thereby endangering the life of its passenger and potentially other motorists, or remain on course and collide with the pedestrians.

This real-life application of the trolley problem demands an immediate decision, and the vehicle's programming must be crafted to address such situations ethically. This raises questions about the responsibility for making these ethical choices: should it rest with the vehicle's AI, the manufacturer, the passengers, or society as a whole?

The ethical implications are profound. If programmers prioritize passenger safety above all else, the vehicle may be programmed to opt for actions that protect its occupants, even if it means causing more harm to others. Conversely, prioritizing minimizing harm to others might engender concerns about passengers' safety and the general acceptance of autonomous vehicles.

As this technology progresses, the ethical challenges concerning the trolley problem in autonomous vehicles have emerged as a focal point for regulators, ethicists, and automotive companies globally. Striking the right balance between safety, fairness, and social acceptance remains an imperative challenge in the quest for fully autonomous vehicles.

Numerous research papers and articles have been published exploring the ethical implications of AI and autonomous vehicles, many of which reference the Trolley Problem. For instance, a 2018 article in the journal "Science" titled "The Social Dilemma of Autonomous Vehicles" discussed the need for public input and consensus on ethical guidelines for autonomous vehicles. The article argued that public opinions and values should shape the decision-making algorithms of these vehicles, including their responses in morally ambiguous situations.

Additionally, real-life scenarios have emerged where autonomous vehicles have faced ethical dilemmas. One well-known example is the fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber car in 2018. The vehicle, operating in autonomous mode, struck and killed a pedestrian who was crossing the road at night. This incident prompted intense discussions on the ethical programming of autonomous vehicles and how they should prioritize the safety of passengers, pedestrians, and other road users.

The trolley problem endures as a compelling and contentious thought experiment, delving into the depths of human morality. As we navigate the complexities of modern technology, the ethical dilemmas posed by the trolley problem transcend mere philosophical discourse. As individuals and as a society, we must confront these questions and strive to find ethical solutions that align with our values and principles, fostering a more equitable and compassionate world for all.

Co-written with ChatGPT and Bard. Images made with Midjourney.

Study further

Based on the text above, several grammar topics can be taught and reinforced. Some of the key grammar concepts that can be covered are:

1. **Passive Voice**: Students can learn how to rewrite active sentences into the passive voice. For example, "Engineers must grapple with complex ethical decisions programmed into the vehicle's algorithms" can be changed to "Complex ethical decisions programmed into the vehicle's algorithms must be grappled with by engineers."

2. **Prepositions**: Students can practice using prepositions correctly, such as "delve into," "confronted with," "encoded into," and "opt for."

3. **Antonyms**: The text presents opportunities to identify and work with antonyms, such as "fascinating" and "undesirable," "abstain" and "act," and "prioritize" and "sacrifice."

4. **Relative Pronouns**: Students can learn how to combine sentences using relative pronouns, as demonstrated in "The person is standing next to you. The person is exceedingly heavy" transformed into "The person who is exceedingly heavy is standing next to you."

5. **Gerunds**: The text includes gerunds, such as "programming," "addressing," and "confronting," which can be recognized and used in other sentences.

6. **Subject-Verb Agreement**: Students can practice subject-verb agreement with sentences like "A group of pedestrians crosses the street," where "crosses" should be changed to "cross."

7. **Reported Speech**: The text can be a basis for teaching reported speech by converting direct quotations to indirect speech. For example, "The philosopher said, 'The trolley problem explores our moral intuitions'" can become "The philosopher stated that the trolley problem explores our moral intuitions."

8. **Modal Verbs**: Modal verbs can be introduced using sentences like "The vehicle must be designed to handle ethical dilemmas."

9. **Exclamatory Sentences**: Students can practice converting declarative sentences into exclamatory form, like changing "The ethical implications are profound" to "The ethical implications are profound!"

10. **Punctuation**: Students can practice proper punctuation, such as adding commas to "Striking the right balance between safety, fairness, and social acceptance remains a critical challenge."