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What is the Objectivist position to moral dilemmas like the "Trolley Problem"?

"A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?"

asked Jan 06 '11 at 10:17

Kaki's gravatar image


edited Feb 06 '11 at 01:21

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

It is treated largely as a non issue as Objectivist ethics is virtue based. See: Objectivist blog

(Jan 06 '11 at 18:15) Cog Cog's gravatar image

Objectivism rejects these kinds of rationalistic exercises at their root.

The purpose of morality is provide principles to guide human actions for the long-range goal of sustaining one's life. The trolley problem, hypothetical lifeboat scenarios, etc. are deliberately contrived so that no good option exists: the choices are death versus death. Another example would be a case where a terrorist orders you to choose which one of his hostages dies next. Morality, by its nature, cannot have an answer to such a question.

answered Jan 06 '11 at 20:08

Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Andrew Dalton ♦


If memory serves me, the intent of the scenario is to get the mark being questioned to say yes to the switching. Then the context is shifted to a doctor weighing one patient versus five, where the five could be saved by killing the one (usually to harvest vital organs). The point, apparently, is to demonstrate (or even justify) fully-coercive-even-unto-death collectivism.

If anything, it's a slightly-valuable exerise in philosophical detection and in the perils of out-of-context judgement.

(Jan 07 '11 at 00:40) JJMcVey ♦ JJMcVey's gravatar image

What did the single person do to you, the switch flipper, to deserve punishment FROM you?

The circumstance is what it is. You are not responsible. You also have no knowledge of any of their moral fiber and therefore cannot make a decision based upon it. Also, morality is not judged by numbers as we are not Utilitarian. The answer: You take no part in it.

If you were given the ultimatum: You get to choose which of your 2 children gets murdered. If you do not make a choice, both will be killed. The same answer applies.

In the absence of choice, you flip the switch to the empty track.

(Jan 07 '11 at 03:58) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

The real interesting question is: What would you do if your loved one is among the 5?

(Jan 07 '11 at 04:00) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

Lifeboat scenarios and games of this kind never contain enough context. The are indeed contrived, by that lack of detail, to come to one altruistic conclusion. As others note, what if the five are all murderous felons, or the one is your wife? What if we put it in military context? Keeping five solders alive to continue the fight against the evil dictator turned philosopher may be desirable to you personally as their Lieutenant. Context matters. These sorts of thought experiments are useful only if there is context. And then it can only be interpreted individually by the person answering.

(Jan 11 '11 at 11:48) Chuck ♦ Chuck's gravatar image

Would the rational answer not be, flip the switch to get your feet moving and walk away from the arbitrary questioner? Solves the problem and leave one free to deal with what matters, reality.

(Feb 06 '11 at 23:25) garret seinen garret%20seinen's gravatar image
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For those who would like a reference in the literature of Objectivism, Ayn Rand briefly responds to "lifeboat" problems in Ayn Rand Answers, pp. 113-114.

By "lifeboat" questions, Ayn Rand means "ethical formulations such as 'What should a man do if he and another man are in a lifeboat that can hold only one?'"

Ayn Rand's key point: "man does not live in a lifeboat -- in a world in which he must kill innocent men to survive."

She also observes: "Under a dictatorship -- under force -- there is no such thing as morality. Morality ends where a gun begins.... Moral rules cannot be prescribed for these situations [lifeboats or dictatorships], because only life is the basis on which to establish a moral code."

A similar case in real life is the story of the Donner Party, stranded in the snow in 1846-47 near what is now Donner Lake in California while en route to California in covered wagons. There were allegations of one or more murders and several instances of people eating the flesh of others who died of natural causes (the latter being viewed as worse morally by Christian standards than by a rational morality). What I find most significant about a case such as the Donner Party's stranding is the subsequent rescue. The moral dilemma I would raise is: to what extent should a person's actions in an emergency situation be influenced by the prospect of possible future rescue, followed by moral evaluations of the survivors' actions during the emergency? For the Donner Party, for example, 48 survivors from the original party of 87 were eventually rescued and continued on to normal life in California. They did not have to remain trapped in the snow for the rest of their lives. Should the potential for such rescue -- the potential of still having a future -- matter in one's choice of actions during the emergency and in moral evaluations of one's actions?

Update -- in response to comments

From Humbug: "...it's true that moral dilemmas are unrealistic...."

It would be better to focus on moral dilemmas that are realistic.

From Humbug: "Does the Objectivist believes in self preservation at all cost?"

Certainly not. Refer to TOE in VOS, and also Galt's Speech.

From Humbug: "Galt wasn't willing to sacrifice his moral to save his own life when he was on the torture rack."

Correct. If life isn't worth living under the terms and conditions set by others, and if there is no escape, then the logical course is to die trying to escape (as in We the Living), or revolt if one can (as in Anthem), or let anyone who cares to see the true nature of one's oppressors see it for themselves with no "sugar coating" from the victims (as in Atlas Shrugged, except that Ayn Rand masterfully constructed an escape for Galt).

There is an excellent answer by Ayn Rand on "lifeboat questions" in Ayn Rand Answers, pp. 113-114 (as noted in my original answer). The answer is too long to excerpt here in its entirety, but the question is:

A rational person finds himself in a life-threatening situation, such that unless he kills an innocent man, he will be killed. Under such circumstances, is it morally permissible to kill an inocent person?"

Ayn Rand's response, in part is:

...every code of ethics must be based on a metaphysics -- on a view of the world in which man lives. But man does not live in a lifeboaat -- in a world in which he must kill innocent men to survive.

answered Jan 08 '11 at 02:05

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Dec 19 '11 at 16:22

Leonard Peikoff answers a similar question in the 48th episode of his podcast: http://www.peikoff.com/podcasts/full-episodes/page/19/#list ; 12:30. He also says what you have to do before asking a moral question.

(Jan 08 '11 at 10:51) Selfmadesoul ♦ Selfmadesoul's gravatar image

By flipping the switch, you prevent four deaths. That is good. Doing nothing when you could easily prevent four people from dying is immoral. The issue of the identity of who dies is outside your realm of action. If it were one innocent person versus five criminals, I'd say flatten the criminals.

It is quite true that Rand rejected emergency situations as useful in defining moral principles, or as illustrative tests of them, but that doesn't mean there is no answer applicable to them. There may, in fact, be a logical extension of morality to at least some such situations. The basic reason life-boat situations don't make valid tests of moral principles is that they don't generalize. Living includes living in hot and cold climates, in large and small communities, with manual or intellectual labor, etc. Stuck in a life-boat isn't one of those variations. One doesn't try to prosper and develop while living in a life-boat, only to get out of the damn thing and back to civilization. But that doesn't exclude there being applicability of the same principles, if circumstances are favorable. A valid ethical system does not need to answer life-boat situations, still, a man doesn't become a lone wolf when a bank-robber enters the room.

If my loved one were alone on one track, and I could only save him by switching to the rail with five people strapped to it, I would switch it.

answered Jan 06 '11 at 19:00

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦

edited Jan 08 '11 at 19:09


Yes. There should be an answer applicable to these situations. I find other Objectivists too eager to reject the question without giving any direction to how one should morally proceed.

I am confused by your 1st paragraph. Does your context include anyone on the other track? If so then, yes, it is a good thing to save FIVE people. But if there is a life on the other track, do you still believe it a good thing, given that the current course of the trolley is on the track of 5?

(Feb 06 '11 at 18:15) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

While it's true that moral dilemmas are unrealistic, we can still apply Objectivism to it. Let modify the Trolley question a little bit. Let say that you are on the trolley with 4 other people. If you push a button on the Trolley, it will redirect the trolley away from your death but you will sacrifice an innocent. To be consistent with the Galt's Oath, it is immoral for you to push that button. Whatever actions (or inactions) that you took that caused you to be placed on that trolley is your responsibility and you must deal with that consequences; regardless of how "unfair" it is. Now, if the person on the track tells you to push the button (e.g., via walkie talkie) and made the conscious decision to give up his life, then you can push the button. Alternatively, if the mad philosopher tied himself to the track, you can then also push the button because this would be justice.

The same logic would also apply if you were NOT on that trolley.

The common response from Objectivists when asked a moral dilemma is to quote Ayn Rand's statement that we do not live in a life boat. That is true in 99.9999% of the cases. However, that doesn't mean that we can't fall into the trap of a life boat. Understanding how morality works in a life boat is actually quite useful. It helps focuses the mind on the chain of cause and effect that causes one to fall into the life boat trap. It creates the motive force to not allow oneself to fall into a life boat.

Take for example the moral dilemma of: stealing medicine that you can't afford to save your wife. Objectivist principles would say no, you do not steal. Objectivists would say this situation is not realistic. Actually, it can be quite realistic if we go through life and not save money for emergencies. By recognizing and accepting that we should take 100% responsibility for our fate, we will be much more careful at avoiding life boat scenarios.

What % of the population exists that do not consider morality in life boat situations and therefore do not take care of themselves properly? How would their attitude toward savings, not living day to day, change if they take complete responsibility for themselves? I personally believe that moral dilemmas are great teaching tools to shape attitudes toward planning in advance and should not be avoided by Objectivists.

answered Dec 18 '11 at 03:11

Humbug's gravatar image


edited Dec 22 '11 at 02:32

I see both the original scenario and the revised version as artificial universes created, like art works, according to the metaphysical value judgments of the artist. Although one may be able to apply Objectivist moral principles in an artificial universe, Objectivist principles would not necessarily derive from such a universe in the same way that they do in the real world. If the universe is so constructed that no one can survive except at a cost to someone else, then there may be no rational way to proceed at all other than to engage in whatever it takes to survive -- and may the fiercest competitor prevail. What other principle could possibly be derived from the kind of situation existing in any "me or thee" universe?

(Dec 18 '11 at 04:05) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

The Universe isn't a bad place. It's just that sometime shit happens. Does the Objectivist believes in self preservation at all cost? I don't think so. Galt wasn't willing to sacrifice his moral to save his own life when he was on the torture rack. Why would a person who is unfortunate enough to be trapped on the trolley do so?

I don't think people who ask these questions are working from the position that the Universe is a bad place. They're just trying to learn HOW to apply Objectivist principles when the options are very limited (either due to reality or lack of imagination).

(Dec 18 '11 at 16:05) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

The revised answer by Humbug introduces the possibility of avoiding morally impossible situations (aka "lifeboat situations") through adherence to valid principles in advance in order to prevent "lifeboat situations" from developing. This is an excellent point, and one that Objectivists certainly would not ignore, where a prior context of that kind exists (as it normally would in real life). There is also the possibility of eventual escape or rescue to consider in real life, as I discussed in my own initial answer. It is misleading to suggest that Objectivists would avoid issues of that kind when consideration of a wider context is possible. "Lifeboat questions" usually are presented without any such wider context. That is precisely part of the problem with most "lifeboat questions" and the reason why Objectivism is prevented (not merely dissuaded) from discussing them further. Serious moral discussions depend crucially on the full context. If that is Humbug's essential point, then I see no conflict with Objectivism.

(Dec 22 '11 at 01:48) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image
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Asked: Jan 06 '11 at 10:17

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Last updated: Dec 22 '11 at 02:32