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Business Ethics

Case 3: The Trolley Problem

The case of the Trolley Problem presents a scenario where a Trolley Engineer is faced with a situation where his trolley’s brakes have failed. On the track ahead of him, 39 children’s’ lives may be lost, if he changes the track, lives of 4 adults may be lost. The case here is not of distinguishing between an evil and a virtuous course of action, rather the situation compels the engineer to choose between the lesser of the two evils. This Problem highlights the social and political context of the moral dilemma. The social context is evident here because the Engineer’s decision does not benefit him/her in anyway, and would thus be in consideration of the social benefit or principle. Moreover, the political aspect is evident here because the Engineer is in position of power, and in a way responsible for whatever outcome that would result.

In this paper, there are two scenarios. In the first scenario, I will argue that the Engineer should change the track and save 39 children’s lives instead of 4 adults. In the second scenario, I argue that the obese homeless man may be pushed on the track to save lives of everyone else. In reaching these arguments, in both cases, I believe utilitarianism is the best ethical approach to adapt. However, let us first review how other theories such as Virtue Ethics, Utilitarianism, and Ethical Intuitionism would view this situation.

First, Virtue Ethics argues that one should do bases upon the individual characters’ sense of righteous or virtuous in that particular scenario. The theory argues that when faced an ethical challenge, one should do put oneself in the shoes of a virtuous man and see what a virtuous person would do in that situation. In this case, what is just and fair and what a good person would do can never be clearly ascertained. Hence, the problem with this theory: it leads to infinite irresoluble speculation of what would a good person do? The answers here can vary, one good person may think that since each human life is invaluable saving 39 lives is an act of greater compassion than saving 4 lives.                                                                                                                                 

Similarly, another good person may argue that switching tracks would imply that you are deliberately deciding to kill 4 adults, whereas without changing tracks, you are helpless and just trying to be an excellent Engineer and doing your duty without exercising your own judgement to decide whom not to save. This would mean that engineer lets the things go as they are and let 39 children be killed. Yet another good man may argue that since children are younger than adults they should be saved and given a chance to live rather than adults. Hence, it is evident that apart from theoretical problems of defining the basis of good acts, and identifying righteous people, the theory is vague, and unhelpful in suggesting a practical course of action to be taken. Similarly, in the second scenario, the theory may be as unhelpful as it is in the first case.                           

Let us consider the case from an Ethical Intuitionist perspective. Ethical intuitionism argues that what is ethical cannot be determined by a predetermined set of principles, or the consequences of an action. Rather, what is ethical clicks our mind, and becomes self-evident to our senses, then and there. This theory, like Virtue Ethics, reduces the processing of reasoning to intuition. In this scenario, it would leave everything to the Engineer’s whims, then and there, to take a decision.                 

As evident from its title, the theory places an undue emphasis on the role of intuition. The problem with relying on the intuition is that out of one’ emotional state, stress or any other feeling, one may take a decision, which one regrets later, because it may not be a well thought out one. This theory would justify and characterize as virtuous, whatever highly subjective decision the engineer makes. The main problem with this kind of approach is that it’s non-communicable to other people. One’s intuition does not constitute a basis for reasoning or justification, and certainly intuition cannot serve as a moral compass.                                                                                             

In the same lieu, let us consider the deontological approach. This theory asserts that one should do an action because it is right in itself, as opposed to it being right or wrong due to its consequences. Thus, a deontological approach would ask the engineer to do something which is  in principle correct. This approach would argue that the engineer is under a negative duty to not to choose between either the killing of 4 adults or of 39 children. This is because, killing in principle is wrong, and both alternatives are equally impressible. Hence, morally, there is no justification for trying to choose between the lesser of two evils. It is because, there is no lesser evil in this case as both are absolutely immoral. In the second scenario, trying to throw the homeless obese person on the track to save lives of others is even worse than letting either 4 adults or 39 children to die. This is because, deliberately killing a person (regardless of the intended consequences) constitutes as murder. The problem with the theory is its absolutely inflexible moral high ground which takes no regard of the actual critical situation at hand.                                                                                                                                                  

Let us move forward to a utilitarian approach. Utilitarian approach defines righteous choices with regards to the consequences that emerge out of those choices. This means, an action which produces the greater social good would be the ethically correct one of the two.           Although, the premise of utilitarianism has been criticized for being flawed due to its definition of ethics through the gains one may receive. However, I believe it is the correct ethical approaching in the trolley case. This is because, we are faced with two equally choices which involve loss of lives. Thus, the engineer can at least chose to maximize the well-being of society by taking a course of action which prevents maximum possible loss of lives. I believe in the first scenario choosing to switch tracks, or in the second nuance, the killing of homeless obese man isn’t wrong.                                                                                                                                          

This is because, utilitarianism does not serve an individual’s greed (as it is often accused of) when death of at least one person is inevitable, the engineer should attempt to save as many lives as s/he can. Within utilitarianism, what I just described pertains to act utilitarianism.            The other branch, rule utilitarianism, would not allow letting 4 adults die to save 39 children. I do not agree with rule utilitarian approach, as I believe, it does not see the individual instance, and decides action in individual cases by a general rule of thumb.

I believe, in this case, there is no clear cut objective ethical guideline to be followed. Moreover, deontological approach is rigid and blind to the situation at hand. In this scenario, if the engineer choses to act indifferent, s/he would be guilty. The engineer’s ethical choice can be explained in either prohibitions or obligations. According to deontological perspective, engineer is prohibited from making a choice between switching or not switching tracks. Similarly, in the second scenario he is under a prohibition to not murder the homeless obese man. Under act utilitarianism, engineer would be obliged to choose actions which minimize the loss of lives.

In this case, one cannot invoke universal human rights or objective principles, in the first scenario. However, in the second case, pushing the obese man to fall on track, may be deemed as violating an individual’s right to life and hence ‘unfair’. However, one may argue that what passes on as “universal” human rights are in fact a part of an intellectual discourse which is a product of particular historical and cultural factors of Western Europe. Here, fairness is not an absolute measure and saving human lives is a deep ethical issue and the engineer must try to save as many lives through whatever it takes.      


Boylan, M. (2013). Business Ethics. John Wiley & Sons.


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