I'm going through this Harvard lecture on Justice, and one interesting question that the professor asks the student somewhere down the line is comparing two variations of the standard trolley problem. One is where the control of who the trolley hits, that is either five normal people or one normal person, is under the control of the person driving the trolley, and the other where the control of who the trolley hits is by an agent outside. The question asked to the students is essentially, if the decision of flipping the switch or not flipping switch becomes more moral or less moral based on who does it.

I would like to ask, what part of moral theories discuss this? Else, is there a moral theory which in itself can explain the better option?

This thread seems tangentially related but I was unable to formulate an answer to this question itself based on it.

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    I shill for non-cognitivist emotivism. To make moral decisions as a human is to sum up and deal with potentially conflicting moral impulses, and therefore it is the impulses that are the crux. A woman will have the impulse to save her biological child, and the reason will strongly be favored to preserve that impulse. The same can be said of a member of the SAS that sacrifices himself for a brother-in-arms. Moral impulses first, rationalization second. The reason always reflects the reasoner's emotional proclivities.
    – J D
    Jun 26, 2023 at 23:13
  • In other words, we follow Obi Wan Kenobi's suggestion.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 27, 2023 at 16:53

2 Answers 2


It's interesting how the moral choices of self-driving cars differ from classic Trolley Problems. Car owners generally want a system that will prioritise their lives if the brakes fail, even at risk of more non-driver lives being taken.. See for example Should a self-driving car kill the baby or the grandma? Depends on where you’re from article in MIT Technology Review.

I would argue there are two primary basisees for moral reasoning

In the former mode, there is no difference, because moral decision making is universalised, although the limited view or adrenalin of driving might have practical consequences. Trolley Problems aim to extract universal experiences, and suppress the complexity ambiguity and nuance of real moral decision making. That all the moral decision making is localised in one participant, is the point.

In practice, we tend to make more practical and selfish decisions prioritising ourselves, family, ones we love, and people similar to ourselves, rather than treating all people in all places as morally equivalent. We can understand this by looking to Game Theory, and how unstable behavioural equilibria may be the best outcome on average, but immoral or dubiously moral behaviours we try to justify post hoc, often involve personal or in-group benefits, even with net costs.

I'd look to consequences of decisions, and accountability, as more interesting variables. If they flipped the switch they took an active role, they can claim responsibility for the outcome as was vs as would have been. If they don't flip, they can disclaim responsibility, blame the system. And, how would the decision vary if they have to face the survivors, or the families of those who die? What about if their role was kept secret, vs if they knew the footage of them would be on the news.

We can look in various ways at a hybrid, layering up particulars, on abstract selves. 'There but for fortune, goes you or I'.

  • As usually I upvote given overall cogency. My objection, for the sake of the reader, is you invoke not the altruistic intuition of emotion as a basis for morality, and it is arguable that without our altruistic impulses that are far more powerful than logic and language which is only a recent development, there is no morality at all (see psychopathy). On behalf of bonobos everywhere, it's possible to act like a good monkey and not have an exegesis to proffer in said activity's defense. ; )
    – J D
    Jun 26, 2023 at 21:41
  • @JD: I'd argue that's just the voice of evolution, & though we claim we have good intuitions & are good people so everyone be nice to us, there are also violent selfish greedy impulses we speak of less, but seem to rule the world more. I go with Haidt's Moral Foundations as pointing towards cross-cultural evolved enablers of cooperation; & relevant to altruistic behaviour would be Care, Fairness, & Loyalty. Pure altruism, leads to free-rider driven instability, & almost no one almost ever is altruistic truly unconditionally.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 26, 2023 at 22:32
  • As you are a person of great learning, and a fan of Haidt with the sole book and interviews I've seen of him, I would respectfully ask, for the readers sake, to differentiate between psychological altruism which is an intuition and a set of impulses that operates without language when feelings of regret, compassion, and kindness overwhelm a monkey, and doctrines and behaviors of altruism based on reasoning that tend subvert the impulse into an agenda. When a dog throws himself at a gun-wielder to protect his keeper, that is unconditional altruism. That people fall short of the moral...
    – J D
    Jun 26, 2023 at 23:06
  • impulses of dogs, who love unconditionally, is irrelevant to the point that though people may subvert psychological altruism with wiley calculations, in no way are people free of the impulses, and that conflicting impulses does no harm to the claim that impulses are the basis of morality, immorality, and amorality conceptually. Of course, this dance was for the readers sake, and as always I read and appreciate your contributions.
    – J D
    Jun 26, 2023 at 23:08

How Would a Buddhist Monk Solve the Classic "Trolley Problem"


A trolley is coming down the tracks. It’s going to hit five people. You’re standing on a bridge over the tracks next to a large person, whose heft could stop the trolley. Do you push the large person off the bridge to save the five people on the tracks?

Those questions are versions of a classic and infamous moral dilemma called the “trolley problem,” which is the center of Harvard professor Joshua Greene’s research. In a presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, Greene reported on his research findings, as reported by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal.

Greene has found that a large proportion of people would flip the switch in the first scenario, while most people would not push a person off the bridge in the second scenario — even though the outcomes are the same. The implications of having to push someone are just too sticky. Two groups, however, are perfectly comfortable pushing the bystander in front of the trolley: those are economists and psychopaths. For them, the trolley problem is purely a question of numbers: logically, it makes sense to sacrifice one life and save five.

Greene had a thesis student, Xin Xiang, who posed the question to Buddhist monks in Northern India. How did they respond? The majority of monks said they would push the person off the bridge.

“Their results were similar to psychopaths—clinically defined— and people with damage to a specific part of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex,” wrote Madrigal in his report.

That conclusion might seem shocking if you have an image of Buddhism as a spirituality of pacifism. In fact, in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha reportedly said that it is impossible for an enlightened being to take a life.

However, Greene notes an interesting difference between the logic of the monks and the economist-psychopaths. In contrast to the latter’s purely utilitarian view, the monks saw the trolley problem as a matter of compassion:

“I think the Buddhist monks were doing something very different,” Greene said, as reported in The Atlantic. “When they gave that response, they said, ‘Of course, killing somebody is a terrible thing to do, but if your intention is pure and you are really doing it for the greater good, and you’re not doing it for yourself or your family, then that could be justified.’”

In Buddhist Ethics the intention to do good and avoid harm, via action or inaction, is an act of karma. Minimizing harm via action or inaction would be good karma. Failing to minimize harm via action or inaction would be bad karma. Both intentions and outcomes are relevant in law and Buddhist concept of karma. In law I think there are jurisdictions wherein it is murder to kill a person in defense of others rather than in self defense!

The Animals - Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood


I'm just a soul whose intentions are good! Oh Lord please don't let me be misunderstood!

  • Karma can be understood as either an account balance that follows one around, or alternatively as simply cause and effect. In the former view, the individual wants to avoid having a negative account balance. In the latter view -- specifically self-transcendence -- the individual does not own the action personally; so the best path is the one with the overall best outcome; but there is neither praise nor blame toward any person. The goal in both cases is to minimise ignorance, so as to minimise suffering. The mechanism is that better understanding leads to better decisions.
    – Michael
    Jun 27, 2023 at 14:42
  • @Michael - Agreed. But the karmic account balance might seem to follow one around anyway even if one makes efforts to transcend self (residual drama) and to master cause and effect in the present circumstances. Even a medical doctor who is competent in one case may be ignorant or negligent in another case. Thomas Szasz argues for three sources of suffering - medical disease, physical injury, or physical disability - adverse social conditions - and mental pain (residual suffering). In the modern world a competent plumber acts to reduce suffering from bad sanitation! Karma is a complicated idea. Jun 27, 2023 at 15:17
  • Karmic account balance may exist and persist as a psycho-social emergent phenomenon. That is, its effects may arise through social thinking, or even self-fulfilling prophecy. Naturally one might take into account the expected emotional reactions of others, in such that even good action may trigger harmful reaction or judgement from those less clear. On this dilemma, one might further consider the time horizon, or tradeoff between short-term and long-term prospect. Choosing to placate the sentiment of ignorant social norms may "help" short-term, but often at the expense of long-term.
    – Michael
    Jun 28, 2023 at 16:07

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