Schizo-Ramblings About The Trolley Problem


EFAP, a podcast related to film, game, and critic criticism, recently had its 250th episode; it’s five-year anniversary. I’ve been a big fan of the show for years, so naturally, I tuned in.

On the show, they played Absurd Trolley Problems... A game where one chooses either to pull or not pull the lever in an increasingly absurd set of trolley problems.

When they started playing the game, I found it extremely appalling that the cast almost unanimously agreed that diverting the train was the most moral action in the classic trolley problem. Here was my reasoning:

1) The train heading towards the 5 people is the state of nature.

2) By pulling, not pulling the lever, I am allowing them to die; not killing them.

3) Pulling the lever, and the subsequent death of the 1 person, is not the state of the world, but rather a consequence of my direct actions.

Here is the thought that put a monkey wrench into my reasoning: Is inaction an action? Or rather, ‘is it true that I am not killing anybody when I decide to do nothing?’ Here is the Oxford Dictionary definition of “inaction”

“lack of action where some is expected or appropriate:”

To further illustrate the problem, here is an absurd version of the trolley problem:

"The trolley is headed towards one person. You can pull the lever to divert it to the other track, killing nobody instead. What do you do?"

In this instance, would you not say that by allowing the train to continue in its path, you are killing the person on the tracks through your inaction?

Commission vs Omission

I believe a key part of understanding the trolley problem is understanding the difference between crimes of commission, and crimes of omission. Crimes of commission constitute acts in which evil is caused as a consequence of malice, whereas crimes of omission are evils which are caused by a lack of action.

My error, then, was not recognizing crimes of omission as crimes at all.

My Skin In The Game

Before coming to my previous realization, I believed that pulling the lever constituted a consequentialist action, whereas not pulling the lever was ontological. My ontological belief was essentially, “It is wrong to kill an innocent person, even if it’s a net positive”.

With the realization that allowing the 5 people to die was actually killing them due to omission, my view has changed on the trolley problem. I now believe ontology and consequentialism play a very mute role in this variation. Truly, if in both situations I am killing people, either by commission or omission, then indeed, the ontological belief that life is sacred, and that it should be preserved in the greatest numbers possible holds supreme.

This post is a part of Agora Road's Travelouge, an effort to promote blogging.