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The trolley problem: should you pull the lever to divert the runaway trolley onto the side track?
The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem is this:
You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option?
The modern form of the problem was first introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967, but also extensively analysed by Judith Thomson, Frances Kamm, and Peter Unger. However an earlier version, in which the one person to be sacrificed on the track was the switchman’s child, was part of a moral questionnaire given to undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin in 1905, and the German legal scholar Hans Welzel [de] discussed a similar problem in 1951. In addition, a similar problem involving whether it is ethical to deflect a projectile from a larger crowd toward a smaller one, was discussed by Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz in his commentary on the Talmud, written and published well before his death in 1953.
Beginning in 2001, the trolley problem and its variants have been used extensively in empirical research on moral psychology. Trolley problems have also been a topic of popular books. The problem often arises in the discussion of the ethics of the design of autonomous vehicles.