The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics that goes like this:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both the exchange is supposed to be one man's life for the lives of five.

I know that Philippa Foot formulated the (in)famous trolley problem, but I never heard of her own opinion regarding it. Did she ever express her opinion on this? If so, what was her position?

1 Answer 1


Phillipa Foot discussed the trolley problem in her article, "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect," which originally appeared in the Oxford Review, Number 5, 1967.

A copy of this article is free on line. The extract that you posted was originally from that article. What I have copied below is how the article continues after your extract.

The question is why we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer for the less occupied track, while most of us would be appalled at the idea that the innocent man could be framed. It may be suggested that the special feature of the latter case is that it involves the corruption of justice, and this is, of course, very important indeed. But if we remove that special feature, supposing that some private individual is to kill an innocent person and pass him off as the criminal we still find ourselves horrified by the idea. The doctrine of double effect offers us a way out of the difficulty, insisting that it is one thing to steer towards someone foreseeing that you will kill him and another to aim at his death as part of your plan. Moreover there is one very important element of good in what is here insisted. In real life it would hardly ever be certain that the man on the narrow track would be killed. Perhaps he might find a foothold on the side of the tunnel and cling on as the vehicle hurtled by. The driver of the tram does not then leap off and brain him with a crowbar. The judge, however, needs the death of the innocent man for his (good) purposes.

I Trust this assists. A number of people have subsequently considered the Trolley Problem, notably Judith Jarvis Thomson who developed many intriguing variants to the problem.

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