The trolley problem is one of the most famous ethical conundrums. The general problem is as follows:
You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley car hurtling toward them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five–but killing another person, who is tied to that spur. What do you do?
When I was first presented with this question, I instantly responded that I would pull the lever in order to save five people while letting one die. Most people, when question, respond the same way. I was speaking in terms of the moral theory of utilitarianism, an old high school debate term that basically means that the most moral action is the one that helps the greatest number of people.
But then I thought, by pulling the lever, was I just letting that person die or was I killing them? That made me reconsider my choice. However, a similar problem is raised if I decide not to pull the lever. If I stand there and do nothing as five people die when I have the power to save them, am I not in some way responsible for their deaths? I feel as though I would not be able to live with myself in the latter scenario, and thus my guilty conscience serves to tell me that the best action in the trolley problem is to pull the lever.
I like this question because it emphasizes the fact that we do not live in a black and white world in which there is only good and evil and no in between. I believe that as humans, we are neither wholly good nor wholly evil in and of ourselves, and that this experiment works to illustrate that.
A question that serves to extend this conundrum even further is the following: would you pull the lever if the five people you would save were strangers and the person that would be killed was a loved one?