Five people work diligently on a railroad track, oblivious to the train barreling towards them. Sometimes the five people are tied down to the track by a villain, rather than workers caught unaware. Sometimes the engineer of the train is incapacitated, and sometimes the brakes have failed. Regardless, you, the student in an introductory ethics class, find yourself next to a lever. If you pull the lever, the train will be redirected onto another track and avoid horribly killing the five innocents. There’s a catch, however, because the second track still has one person on it, another innocent in the wrong place at the wrong time who will certainly be killed. Do you pull the lever?
This thought experiment, The Trolley Problem is a standard “intuition pump” of ethics teachers everywhere, because it draws out the seemingly self-evident intuitions we have about what is right and wrong in our ethical judgments, and then adds complications that challenge those initial intuitions. If you do it right, students are confronted with the limits and potential contradictions in their own values and compelled to clarify and strengthen their own ethical commitments. Some surveys have shown that 90% of respondents would pull the lever in this first case.
The classic follow-up to this first response is to then change the scene. The situation is the same, except instead of having two tracks, you now find yourself on a bridge, overlooking a runaway train that is about to hit the five workers on the tracks. Next to you is a very large man. He’s standing very, very close to the edge of the bridge. If you push him just a little bit, he will fall off the bridge and die, but he is large enough that he will certainly stop the train from hitting the five workers. Do you push him? Even though the same number of people’s lives are on the line in each alternative, students usually balk at this second question, with the majority usually saying that now they would not sacrifice the one person for the sake of the five.
For the first time, all the students in one of my classes chose not to pull the lever when confronted with the original question. I was so surprised that it took me a moment to recover and remember my counter-questions to that outcome. Initially I thought “wow, a whole class of Kantians, what are the odds?” Their rationale, however, was overwhelmingly one of wanting to avoid being responsible or culpable, rather than of not wanting to violate an absolute moral rule. At first, they wanted to avoid being held legally liable for murder. When that was set aside, they wanted to do nothing, regardless of outcome, because they could tell themselves they weren’t responsible. After all, they had made no choice to interfere.
I offered a few more examples and questions, each time being met with a stubborn refusal or fear of doing, until I switched up the scenario. Instead of at the lever, I put them on the tracks and asked them what they would wish the person at the lever to do. It was like the clouds parted, and the fog of vague hostility towards all of these uncomfortable questions dissipated. Now, the majority hoped that someone would pull the lever in the original scenario, especially if the students don’t know which track they would end up on. Many continued to choose this even if they knew they would be killed.
I was stunned at how this played out, and what it seemed to say about this group. The relationship these students have to ethical reasoning, to making impactful decisions, and to being responsible toward others is avoidant and defensive, but it’s not, as I initially suspected, even consistently egoistic. They are more afraid of being deemed guilty or of bearing responsibility for doing something that affects others than they are committed to a moral imperative or a utilitarian calculus.
When I compelled them to make decisions, they stubbornly resisted ethical reasoning itself, and instead reasoned like competitive institution-navigating individualists, thinking in terms of liability, punishment, advantage, and exchange. They tried to shift responsibility to the workers for being on the tracks, or the train company for poor maintenance, or the government for insufficient regulations, doing anything to avoid accepting the challenge and burden of even potential responsibility for themselves and the power they hand. When the ability to choose was taken away, and instead they were only asked to wish for someone else to decide, then they had a psychologically easier time thinking in terms of what would be ethical, responsible, or good.
This experience sheds a light on the ways in which ethical reasoning can truly be a challenge that unsettles people. This is especially the case for folks who are taught and socialized to just keep their head down, follow the well-trod path for social advancement, and not rock the boat. These students feel that the challenges posed by ethical reasoning are a threat to their commitment to safe pathways and a kind of unexamined existential conservatism. I suspect the resistance to it is also fueled by a kind of latent resentment towards those safe modes of living themselves. They promised security and the comfort of predictability at least, and if nothing else, ethical reasoning highlights the shoddy, illusory nature of the certainties provided for by these second-hand defenses. This frustration is nothing to scoff at, given the lifetime of promises that have underwritten it. At the same time, this frustration is precisely the symptom that philosophizing, at its best, is designed to produce and transform. Building resilience towards that transformation should be one of our chief pedagogical goals as teachers.