Trolley cases are scenarios that play an important role in a specific kind of thought experiment, famously published by Philippa Foot. Here's just one of the many formulations:

Consider a pair of scenarios called Rescue I and Rescue II (MD 80). In both cases, we are driving a jeep along a sea shore and have the chance to save various configurations of stranded people from an incoming tide. In the first case, we are about to save one person from the tide, and spot five others whom we can save, but we cannot save both. In Rescue II, we can save five, but to reach them we would for some reason would have to run over one person, killing him. (Source: SEP entry)

Them being thought experiments, it is not necessary for such cases to have actually obtained so that they can be of value in philosophy. Still, it might be interesting to know if there are any recorded cases of events that roughly approximate the conditions in one of the trolley scenarios - and also how humans in these situations have reacted.

My question is: Which real-world events have been recorded (in newspapers, first-hand reports, etc.) that approximate one of the abstract formulations of trolley cases to a high degree? I'd be interested to learn (a) which specific trolley scenario they approximate, (b) how the humans in these situations acted, and (c) how their action was judged in hindsight, by themselves or others, such as judges, the authorities, the victims, public opinion, etc.


1 Answer 1


The trolley problem could be a good metaphor for a triage situation, where the number of ailing and dying patients exceeds the medical capacity of the doctors and so some patients must die so that others may receive treatment.

In this case, the rate of illness might be comparable to an oncoming train. With the doctor at the switch. Making a medical decision might save more or less patients. It won't always be a 5 to 1 scenario but that isn't the important part of the thought experiment. Just by not treating this one patient when the doctor could save them, the doctor is willingly letting the patient die. But treating that patient means some other patients might be left to die instead. The trolley problem is therefore relevant to some bioethical real world situations.

Here is an interesting paper on the subject:


  • A tragically relevant problem, as last year many medical facilities around the world have been faced with the issue of having to operate such triage between overflowing Covid 19 patients.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 5:07
  • Absolutely so, friend. Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 18:16

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .