The Trolley Problem

Ethical problems bring people the dilemma of what criteria and action should be initiated in addressing incidences, which portray an individual’s moral values. These ethical problems have denoted people’s actions as either morally permissible or not in portraying the consequences of the action taken in showing whether they are good or bad. Therefore, in addressing these ethical problems, some basic ethical theories have been formulated in attempt to justify the action taken by an individual in such instances. The write up applies Kantian and Utilitarian theories addressing the trolley problem.

According to Clark (2009), trolley problem is a question of human morality that is defined by consequences of an action taken in solving an ethical problem. The trolley problem as addressed by this paper is a situation of a runaway trolley, which would kill five people on the track ahead if it continues on its course. The only way to save five people is for one to hit a switch that will turn the trolley on a side track thereby leading to the death of one person, who is totally unaware of the situation. Personally, I will pull the switch, because it is permissible to save five people and sacrifice one; though, it raises concerns of a killing. However, I will not push the stranger in the second scenario, but, instead, let him make the decision since that would be considered a murder. Apart from the personal opinion, this paper addresses how Kantian and Utilitarian theories can be applied to the trolley problem.

Kantian and Utilitarian Theories

As pointed out by Anscombe (2006), Kantian theory depicts that the correctness or wrongness of an action does not squarely depend on its consequences but rather whether it fulfills the intended obligation. She notes that the Kantian ethics concentrate on how one evaluates people and not actions. That is, one’s goodness or badness is dependent on motivation of their actions but not on the goodness of consequence of their actions. Therefore, applying Kantian ethic theory to the trolley problem, one would be projected not to pull the switch or push the stranger as a duty of not letting the unaware person die in the expense of saving lives of five people. This shows that Kantian theory holds that one should not initiate an action that risks the life of any innocent person. This means that, by pulling the switch and pushing the stranger to save the lives of five people on the trolley while sacrificing an individual, the theory will not judge the person as good.

This position is contradicted by the Utilitarian theory, which, according to Andre & Velasquez (2010), depicts that the rightness or wrongness of an action taken in solving an ethical problem is determined by the consequences that arise from the decision taken. Utilitarian ethics assesses one’s moral value on the outcome of the action taken that gives the most favorable consequence of solving the ethical problem. Therefore, based on this theory, one would be subjected to push the switch and push the stranger to save the life of the five people thereby leading to the death of one person. Andre & Velasquez (2010) point out that utilitarian theory eludes that morally correct actions are those that provide the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. This shows that one is depicted to have a good moral ethics if his or her actions result in saving lives of many people than just an individual.


In conclusion, Utilitarian and Kantian ethics have presented strengths and weaknesses in trying to addresses the trolley problem. Kantian ethic solemnly uses motivation approach on determining the action to be taken in solving an ethical problem in order not to endanger persons who are unaware of the cause of a given incident. However, this theory adopts universal rules of initiating actions. This denotes selfishness rather than granting satisfaction to the large population. On the other hand, utilitarian theory, as depicted in this paper, does not evaluate the importance of preserving the life of an individual, who dies at the expense of saving the life of the greatest population represented by the five people. But of the two ethics, utilitarian theory denotes a lucrative and decisive ethical approach that gives an individual with better assessment approach that can help in solving the ethical problem that satisfies the greatest population rather than an individual.

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