The Trolley Problem

We’re back by (somewhat) popular demand!
Brad is a Bad Person is getting philosophical in season 2. In the first episode back we investigate the trolley problem to find out if Brad really is a bad person.

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There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. 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 tied up 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 most ethical choice?



This time you are standing on top of a bridge and have the option of pushing a fat man on to the tracks. Assuming you know somehow that the man is so fat that he will stop the trolley from hitting the five people, is it ethical to push him on to the tracks?

The fat man


Many surveys have been done on the trolley problem but the results seem to consistently show that around 90% of people say that they would pull the lever.

According to one survey, only 11% of people would push the fat man on to the tracks.


A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Do you support the morality of the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons and save their lives?


Suppose the that each of the five people on the main track have a 25% chance of dying whereas the single person on the alternate track has an 85% chance of dying. Should you pull the lever?

Morgan’s mathematical analysis of this scenario:

If you do pull the lever you can expect 0.85 deaths, as opposed to 1.25 if you do not pull the lever. Obviously, the expected number of deaths does not make sense for a one-time scenario so it is better to think about what would happen over many scenarios. If you were faced with this choice 100 times and you pulled the lever each time then you would expect 85 people to die. If you didn’t pull the lever on any of the 100 times then you would expect 125 people to die.

This seems to indicate that pulling the lever is the most statistically sound case if your goal is to minimise deaths. However, assuming you will be faced with the scenario only once, there is a decent argument for not pulling the lever.


If you hold the opinion that the only acceptable outcome is if nobody dies then letting the trolley hit the five people gives the best odds of that happening. However, this also allows for the possibility of several deaths. In order to maximise the chance of no deaths you would have to risk a greater than 1 in 3 chance of multiple fatalities, which would not be possible if you were to pull the lever.

This episode is dedicated the memory of Stephen Hawking, whom Brad mentions in the episode. Sorry about that (to be fair to Brad though, Hawking was alive at the time of recording so it wasn’t quite as disrespectful as it will sound now).


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