The Trolley Problem, for those of you who have not been exposed to it, goes as follows:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?
"What would you do?" she asked me.
“Nothing,” I said. “Runaway trolleys are pretty noisy. Those five people are going to hear it coming and jump off the tracks.”
“No they are not,” she said.
“What, they’re deaf? What are five deaf people doing hanging out on the railroad tracks? They should realize it’s dangerous for them.”
“They’re not deaf,” she replied. “For the purpose of the argument, we’ll say they’re tied up on the tracks.”
“Then I would pull the lever. Let the one guy jump off the track.”
“He’s tied up, too.”
“Then I would look around for Snidely Whiplash. Who is doing all this tying people to railroad tracks?”
“That’s not important. The important thing is, do you kill one person to save five?”
“I guess, although I seldom while away the afternoon in a railroad yard, so the occasion might not present itself.”
“What if the one person tied to the tracks was your friend?”
“That would make it tougher. Does he owe me money?”
“That doesn’t enter into it!” I could tell she was getting a little impatient, but once I get sucked into the whirlpool of moral dilemma, I’m usually determined enough to doggie-paddle my way out of it. "Or what if I owed him money?” I said ruminatively. “That could change things.”
“It’s not about money.”
“It’s almost always about money,” I said. “You’re not going to solve anything by denying economic reality.”
“WOULD YOU JUST MAKE A FRIGGING CHOICE?”
“All right. I would pull the lever. It had better be well marked, though, because I am not familiar much with railroad switching gear. Like, if it was clearly labeled “Kill Five” and “Kill One,” it would help.”
“Fine,” she said. “That’s what most people would do.” I was disappointed to hear that, because I pride myself on being an independent thinker and, as I have noted here before, I seldom blindly follow the actions of the herd, unless they are my neighbors and have already put their recycle bins on the street.
“Now we’re going to change the problem a little. There’s still five people tied up on the track, but now the only way you can save them is by pushing a fat man on an overpass onto the tracks, which will stop the trolley, saving the five people but killing the fat guy. Would you do it?”
“No,” I said.
“Most people answer exactly as you did. Why do you think that is?”
“BECAUSE FAT GUYS ARE HARD TO PUSH!” I said triumphantly, certain that that was the correct answer.
Apparently it wasn't, though, because I’ve been sleeping in the garage since Friday.