Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bathroom Monologue: The Trolley Fallacy

There’s a popular philosophical dilemma about trolleys. It’s popular, and not only amongst trolley drivers, who get so little publicity to them that I assume they’re thrilled for the attention. My apologies to those trolley matrons, but the dilemma is actually bunk.

It begins on trolley tracks. You’re standing there, waiting for the trolley. It comes screaming down the tracks. The people on board are waving frantically and hopping off. The driver is fighting with the controls, but the thing is sparking and he clearly can’t regain control.

A ways down the tracks are two construction workers. They have jackhammers and noise-blocking earmuffs on. They are at work and don’t see the trolley. There is no way you can get to warn them before the trolley runs them off. At this speed, it’s certain they’ll be killed or paralyzed.

You’re on the platform. The only other person around is a vastly obese man. If you push him onto the tracks, the trolley will slow and stop before it hits the two men. If you do that, though, he’s almost certain to be killed or paralyzed.

This is the dilemma. Do you shove him onto the tracks, murdering one man to save two? Or do you stand still and let the two men die without directly killing someone yourself? Is the direct murder of one man worse than allowing two to die in eyeshot? Is inactivity worse than activity here?

But the dilemma is bunk, at least one it comes to me. You see: I’m obese.

I can jump on the tracks, killing or crippling myself, and sparing three lives all at once. In a rare twist of fate, being fat actually lends me ethical weight. I’m unsurprised that philosophers have ignored my rotund brethren in this fallacy of a dilemma. The overweight are so often pushed… aside.


  1. Surely this all depends on the relative worth of people? Your philosophical model seems simplistic in that it assumes all people have equal worth which we all know is rubbish: construction workers are quite low on the scale, and as for fat people, well I don't want to offend.

    So in my view, if the two construction workers are in fact fat, then it is actually a philosophical travesty to stop the tram.


  2. I was just covering this in sociology last week, albeit a slightly different scenario.

  3. hmm... *scratches head* I need to sleep on this.


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