Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Relative Morality: The Trolley Problem and Seven Scenarios thatDemonstrate Morality is Relative and Dependent on our Prior Knowledge

Many hold to the belief that there is an objective or absolute moral standard that exists externally from us, and that we have a kind of moral sense that sniffs out this underlying moral code, or they believe their religion or their God provides a moral basis for all our moral actions and judgments.

All of these assumptions seem to be falsified by one simple thought experiment. You may have heard of it. It’s called The Trolley problem.

Here I am merely going to consider seven alternate scenarios of the trolley problem and change the conditions of each version of the events in the thought experiment and then discuss the moral consequences of each.

If I’m correct, I think you’ll find that when the conditions change our moral inclination changes as well. When the prior knowledge we have available changes our moral judgement shifts too. This will prove that morality is relative and dependent upon conditional restraints, including but not limited to our level of understanding regarding the conditions themselves.

The first thing we will need to do is set up the Trolley problem.

The Trolley Problem
There are three people tied to a stretch of track. Up ahead is a train baring down on them fast. All three will surely perish if nothing is done.

Now, let’s consider various scenarios and see how changing the conditions changes our moral perspective.

Scenario A
Suddenly we realize we are in proximity of a lever that will switch the tracks and divert the speeding train onto a different path thereby saving all three hapless victims.

 Question: Do you pull the lever?

Unless you’re a sociopath, the answer is most assuredly yes. People, whether it is because of some evolutionary altruistic sense or simply a humanistic desire not to see harm come to innocent people, will always choose to pull the lever and save those people. Nobody who contains such moral feelings ever says, in all seriousness, no to saving the people. At least, I haven’t run across any. Additionally, there is no logical reason not to.

One might object: but wait a minute! What if those people tied to the tracks are escaped criminals and convicts? Well, then we’ve changed the conditions of the thought experiment. Which we are going to do to show, just as this objection shows, that people’s moral views change depending upon the conditions which also change – thus showing that human morality is relative.

Scenario B
It’s the same problem. The train is barreling down the tracks and the three people are surely doomed. This time we happen to be standing on a bridge which crosses directly over the tracks. We look down, but to our dread discover that there is no switch track. Standing to our right, however, we suddenly notice an extremely obese man. He is so large, in fact, that if we pushed him off the bridge and onto the tracks then he’d surely stop the train thereby saving all three lives.

 Question: Do you push the fat man onto the tracks, thereby murdering him, in order to save three hapless lives?

Here is where things start to get tricky. Most people will say no, even though the statistical outcome varies very slightly from the original. Three people’s lives still hang in the balance. If you act quickly you can save all three. It does, however, require you to deliberately push someone onto the train tracks thereby killing them to save three others. But if you do nothing, those three people will surely become roadkill.

Standing by and doing nothing while you watch others suffer while they endure a horrible event is often called the *bystander effect. Most people will make justifications for why they shouldn’t involve themselves. Watching a bar fight, they might say, well, I’ll let those two settle matters. It’s between them. Watching a husband abuse a spouse they might say the same. It’s between them, none of my business. There have been real world examples of public rape in India where nobody interrupted the violent rape of a woman on a bus because it simply wasn’t any of their business.

Other times it appears people are genuinely fearful. If they get involved there is a real risk that they will be harmed as well. This deters people from doing what they feel is the right thing and allowing what they see as the lesser evil (at least from their point of view) to unfold instead of making it into a travesty by involving themselves and putting themselves into harm’s way.

Needless to say, most people are not comfortable taking a life to save three innocent lives. In fact, most would rather (willfully) allow three people to perish rather than (willfully) have to kill someone against their will.

Some have objected that there are other possible ways to grapple with this scenario. For example, you could jump onto the tracks yourself and try stopping the train in a noble act of self-sacrifice. But, unlike the fat man, there is no guarantee it will work. After all, you aren’t sufficiently large enough to halt the oncoming train. It’s a gamble and the odds are not in your favor.

What’s more, knowing that you’ll in all likelihood die, you are technically only committing suicide which, when you think about it, is only adding insult to injury of the three who will surely die regardless of your sacrifice.


The above scenarios A and B are the basis of the classic Trolley problem.

They show us that our moral sense goes into panic when we are faced with a more precarious situation, such as scenario B.

We often hesitate since our minds are desperately trying to figure out a right answer when there isn’t likely one. The truth is, in such a situation we simply don’t know what to do. Which is why in real life we have examples of both great heroics and people idly standing by and doing nothing.

Meanwhile, we know that willfully killing the person would be wrong, so we don’t want to do it. But we also are uncomfortable with the idea that three innocent people will die for no reason – or worse, because we chose to do nothing when we could have, in fact, easily prevented their deaths.

This discomfort expresses the success of the Trolley problem as a thought experiment, because if there were an easy answer, a recognizable objective or absolute moral standard, the answer would always be clear to us. But it’s not. Instead of moral clarity we have moral confusion.

On top of this, the Trolley problem also demonstrates that our moral sense relies on the conditions and prior knowledge and thus is rendered relative to the events unfolding around us and in relation to us.

How do we know this? Well, believe it or not, we can actually confuse our moral senses even more!

Consider the following example.

Scenario C
The same problem as scenario B. The train is rushing at breakneck pace toward three people trapped on the tracks. We are standing on a bridge when, low and behold, we discover there is a fat man standing next to us on the bridge. He is large enough to stop the train if, and only if, we push him off the bridge and onto the tracks.
 As we saw with scenario B, this is where most people grow extremely uncomfortable. But let’s make this scenario slightly more imperative than version B.
 This time we *do know the people tied to the tracks. The people are 1) your mother, 2) your doctor, and 3) your best friend.

 Question: Do you push the fat man onto the track and stop the train thereby saving your mother, your doctor, and your best friend?

When this scenario is given many people (not all, but quite a surprising number) will immediately reverse their choice from scenario B, where they held it was wrong to push the fat man onto the tracks, and will suddenly – and without hesitating – shove the fat man off the bridge thereby saving their important loved ones.

Scenario C is used to express the fact that we place greater moral value in those who are close to us, whether it is our family, our tribe, our neighbors, our fellow countrymen.

But nothing has statistically changed in this example. The only thing that has changes is our foreknowledge. This time we know exactly who are tied on the tracks before we have to face making any moral judgement.

But we’re not finished yet! There is yet another couple scenarios that will demonstrate the greater good is not always necessarily dependent upon a moral judgement and a moral judgement, made in good faith, doesn’t necessarily guarantee the greater good.

Allow me to explain.

Scenario D
This is the same as scenario C, but this time, instead of your doctor the person wedged between your best friend and your mother is Adolf Hitler. Now, Hitler is a real bad dude. You know this. Everyone knows this. The question is…

Question: Do you push the fat man off the bridge and save three innocent lives knowing that, perhaps, one of them is the greatest mass murdering psychotic dictator in all of history?

In such a situation many become even more morally confused. They want to save their mom and their friend but they know that if they let Hitler live he will probably kill millions of innocent people. Once they realize this, they find themselves asking whether or not the value of their friend’s life and their mother’s life is worth millions of other lives, including the life of the fat man which they’d have to push in order to save the three on the tracks.

The things is, if we throw an evil person like Adolf Hitler into the mix most people are back to refusing to push the fat man.

But what if there was no fat man?

Scenario E
This scenario is exactly like scenario A, where there is a switch track and a lever we can pull to divert the train. And like scenario D, it’s your best friend, mother, and Adolf Hitler.

Question: Do you pull the lever?

Many find it harder to do. Some will and some won’t, depending on how much they value their loved ones and how much they despise the evil person on the tracks.

Scenario F
We’re not out of the woods yet. Just like scenarios C, D, and E we know who are on the tracks. But this time, two of the three are evil. This time you see your best friend is next to Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson!

Question: Do you pull the lever?

In this scenario more people are inclined to sacrifice their best friend, because they don’t want two evil people running a muck and harming countless others.

But what has changed here? Notice that now they will sacrifice their best friend when earlier they wouldn’t even sacrifice a perfect stranger to save three people and in scenario C their very own beloved family members and friends!

Scenario G
Same as the above but this time all three persons tied to the tracks are evil sons of bitches. We have Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Stalin.

Question: Do you pull the lever?

There is a G-2.0 scenario which says the evildoers are on the clear tracks, safe but still tied up. It asks if you'd switch the lever to deliberately put them in harms way knowing how evil they truly are. In one fell swoop you could take out Hitler, Manson, and Stalin.

Would you do it? 

Some might do it out of a sense that killing these three evil men leads to a greater good than not killing them. At the same time, however, we realize that murdering three people is not moral, and that to seek the greater good, in this case, we'd have to commit an immoral act.

How then is morality not relative?


The Trolley problem frustrates many because there is clearly no straight, clean-cut answer. Many who expect there to be an objective or even absolute morality often become frustrated by the thought experiment's limitations and begin creating wild hypotheticals to try and avoid having to make a moral judgement themselves. Maybe it’s God’s will for these people to die? Who are we to question God? Maybe God is testing us and wants us to learn that we cannot save everyone? Maybe Superman swoops down at the last minute and rescues everyone?

No, I’m afraid these rationalizations do not solve for the initial conditions as set by the problem. Really, the Trolley problem shows that our moral judgments do not abide by an objective or absolute standard. Instead, they frequently shift and change as our perspective shifts and changes and appear to be dependent on the conditions of the events which are unfolding, dependent upon our prior knowledge, and frequently change when the conditions and information changes.

Really, you’ve gotta love the Trolley problem.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist