Let us take a hypothetical situation where you are on a train that is approaching a fork. You are the only person who has the power to control the direction the train takes. If you leave the train alone, it will kill 10 people; on the other hand, if you change the direction of the train, it will kill 1 person.

What would you do? Would it be considered right to leave the train going forwards and not interfering? Is the lack of action in a sense just as much of a decision, or an action? If you do change the direction of the train, is it right to judge that the life of that one person is worth less than the lives of the other 10 people?

It seems that there is no right answer. I think that since it is impossible to determine the nature of these people and judge them (even if we could know their nature, I don't think we should be able to judge the worth of their lives) that we should be "safe" and make the train kill only one man instead of 10. I think that the lack of action is just as much a deliberate choice and in that sense it is judging that the life of one man is worth more than ten.

  • If all lives are worth the same amount, then it follows inescapably that this amount is less than ten times that amount.
    – David H
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 17:56
  • But are we really able to say that all lives are worth the same amount?
    – user4290
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 17:57
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    That's irrelevant. Not all lottery tickets are worth the same amount of prize money. Should that stop the clerk at the gas station from charging you the same amount for each ticket?
    – David H
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 18:17
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    This is a famous problem often taught in introductory classes in ethics: see youtube.com/watch?v=kBdfcR-8hEY for instance.
    – Ben
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 18:47
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    Either you agree with the premise or you don't. You can't criticize it internally, if you take an external position, you can criticize the premises but the answer will be "no, it's not right".
    – iphigenie
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 10:52

3 Answers 3


But are we really able to say that all lives are worth the same amount?

Sure we can, without judging. As each life has the same future potential, despite its past. So its reasonable to choose for 10 times more potential (to give the train direction) then to let it go and kill 10 people instead of 1.

Let me explain a bit more. Do you know what life is about? Do you know of the general purpose of all living/non-living entities? If the purpose would be to discover, learn, grown and increase the quality of ones being in purpose of improving the overall system in which they are defined: Then wouldn't it be more likely for 10 people to improve the overall system, in which they are defined, more, than 1 person?

Compare it with cells in your body of equal function/levels. (assuming that humans, physical bodies on planet earth are of equal 'levels'). Would you choose to let only one cell become damaged instead of 10 if you had the choice? Sure you would choose for the least amount of damage, as its the best out come for your physical system, your body. You do not judge your cells here, you conclude. So by this logic you do not judge, you conclude.

But now you question is misphrased: "Is it right to judge if the life of one person is worth more than ten others?"

So your question could become: "Is it right to conclude that the life of 10 persons is worth more than the life of one person".

I would say, yes.

  • But what if, instead, you and another person were standing next to the track, and you knew that pushing the other person on the track would stop the train (but your own body would not be enough to stop the train). Should you push the other person on the track to save the 10? Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 14:12
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    @called2voyage I do not see the purpose of your question. I do not see why its different from the main question in this topic. Of course each situation has a slightly different approach. What if those 10 people have an age of 96 years and soon are about to die and that other 1 person is a healthy kid with the age of 12? The kid would live more years than all the years combined left for the 96+ old humans. But what if these 96+ humans are monks that decrease purposefully the entropy of the system every day,and the boy had a bad youth and will become a criminal? Whats the point of your question? Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 9:37
  • It's just to see if you see any difference in that scenario. You apparently do not, which means your view is consistent. Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 12:34

It's a matter of causality, responsibility and available information.

How much are the lives of those people worth?

A priori they all are worth the same. A posteriori there is no reachable consensus or possible objectivity to quantify their worth, even if you had perfect information.

Therefore, either (a) you make assumptions and prejudice they are all worth the same or (b) you suspend any action until you can make the right decision. Note the difference.

the lack of action is just as much a deliberate choice

It's not a choice, it's the suspension of any choice until a good decision can be made. The train is not going to wait that long, but that is just bad luck (or a causal chain).

Any action has a set of causes and a course. If you change the course of some action, you are part of the causes of whatever comes after that. The only possible responsible options are not to interfere or change the course of action only when it is meant to be for the better and there are good reasons to think so.

That's why it's not right to make those decisions, unless you are specifically assigned to do that. E.g. you are responsible for the train.

We, in society, don't like people making decisions on the live of other people unless they are specifically assigned to that. E.g. judges or medics. And when some person has to do that there is usually a well established praxis, rules or protocol.

If someone makes such a decision, that person is not only making that decision, that decision would also mean establishing a precedent about how some people (or anyone) can make decisions on other people's lives with (unavoidably) partial information. Ethics is basically about that kind of rules, so that would be completely unethical. Not by doing something that is bad per se (killing people), but by doing something that is destroying the rules followed in the society (moral).

PD: a similar dilemma could be whether it's right to judge to experiment on some people for the advance of science and saving innumerable lives. How many people could we sacrifice to find a cure for cancer? How many people is going to die due to cancer in the next century? Consider you are a politician. If you sign and support a law, experiments will be conducted on 10K people, and it is certain this will save the life of 100M people in the next century, if you don't sign then that will not happen and 100M people will die due to cancer in the next century. Is it right to make that decision?

  • Judges and medics operate in foreseeable scenario's. A passenger on a runaway train doesn't. So " that decision would also mean establishing a precedent about how some people (or anyone) can make decisions on other people's lives " is not exactly the same. There is no such thing as "rules or protocol" on a runaway train with only passengers. Now I made the assumption there are only passengers and no personal on the train. Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 9:42
  • However passengers are not experts. Passengers may think the train will run over 10 people when it will only move very close to them, and to avoid that they may actually kill one person. In the case of cars people must get a driving license and follow a set of rules they have to memorize. The decisions, when there are lives at stake, are made by consensus by creating a set of rules, we try to avoid people deciding by themselves because that is a slippery slope that leads to no rules, anarchy, no moral, no ethics, etc.
    – Trylks
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 11:27
  • "we try to avoid people deciding by themselves because that is a slippery slope that leads to no rules, anarchy, no moral, no ethics, etc" I totally agree. In addition: Rules are made on a particular moment in time, from that point on wards everybody should operate in consensus of the rules. But before the point the rule was created, one is free to make decisions for himself if motivated by the proper intent. Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 11:58
  • @MikedeKlerk every act is establishing a precedent and to some extent creating that rule, that should not be overlooked. If there is no rule about whether it is possible for someone to jugdge that, then it's wrong to judge that due to the precendent it is establishing. I've thought of another example I'm going to add in a post-data in my answer.
    – Trylks
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 20:39
  • I would have voted +1 except for the PD section. The original dilemma was certain to the judge; the example of cancer is uncertain to the judge. Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 14:08

This is a fallacy of false dichotomy. Strictly, following the implied decision, you should kill as many people as possible. Check the logic below. Either you behave with ethics, or either you don't.

Now, put the problem in this way. You have two kids. Have you already prioritized them? Perhaps you should know by anticipate which one is a better choice, in order to save him in case of accident, in order to give him more time, in order to treat him better, to destinate more budget, etc.

There are two decisions here. The first one involves accepting unethical behavior (killing people with the train or accepting to kill or treat worst your less-preferred son). If you have already accepted that, you can just consider yourself a bad person. Obvious, isn't it? By accepting harming people, you are choosing the unethical side.

But the ethical way is not to accept killing. To avoid at all cost the death of people or your sons. Ethically, you are forced to die for your children or for others. You cannot accept killing and just choose who to kill. You should do whatever, the impossible, to save people, and to give both of your children the best.

The second decision, who to kill, is therefore irrelevant. You have already behaved unethically. You are already a bad person. Perhaps, to be coherent, you can just kill both of your children and other people, without waiting for any train.

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