What would virtue ethics have to say about the Trolley Problem?

The famous Trolley Problem is as follows:

You are riding in a trolley without functioning brakes, headed toward a switch in the tracks. On the current track stand five people who stand to be killed if the trolley continues on its path. You have access to a switch that would make the trolley change to the other track, but another individual stands there. That person is certain to be killed if the switch is activated.

So do you switch tracks or not?

This problem is usually analyzed through deontology and utilitarianism perspectives. I am curious about how a virtue ethicist would approach this.

  • Is patience considered a virtue relative to virtue ethics? If so, I would be patient and let the way of the universe flow into me to determine whether or not tracks are switched. That's not to say the legal system won't hold me accountable if I fail to prove-up how I did not voluntarily switch tracks. May 5, 2023 at 18:19
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    Personally, I presume that the solution to the travelling salesman problem (which the use of such gives a person optimal results in just about anything socio-economic in life) requires that a person be patient and allow entropy to take its course by moving the person like a puppet. Presumptively, free will does not exist to take any other routes, thus the only route provided to the salesman is the route provided by the salesman's arrow of time. Perhaps I am a virtue ethicist, in that I think patience is the best recourse because free will does not exist for any other recourse. May 5, 2023 at 18:29
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    We had patience in 1940. After that, not so much.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 5, 2023 at 23:42
  • Usually if no profit of someone save/death ethically do not do nothing and say "sorry" after. May 6, 2023 at 7:54
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    Philippa Foot, who invented the trolley problem, was a virtue ethicist. For her own take on it, which involves the virtues of charity and justice, see SEP. More generally, see the virtue ethics chapter from the Trolley Problem volume.
    – Conifold
    May 6, 2023 at 9:12

2 Answers 2


THIS virtue ethicist considers trolley problems to be toxic relative to training philosophers to be ethicists. They PRESUME that the world is a 100% predictable place, that we have extremely limited options within it, and that humans can be treated either numerically or as logic/legal abstractions (the utilitarian and deontological perspectives). They also constrain the student to situations where death and catastrophe is inevitable.

This teaches philosophy students to approach ethical questions as a bounded problem, with certain outcomes, not to exercise imagination upon them, to treat humans as abstractions without empathy, and to applaud themselves for advocating for decisions that harm others. Every aspect of this degrades the moral VIRTUE in the student.

Our actual world is not certain, nor do we know its bounds/constraints with high confidence, and this leads, in the real world, to moral obligations to break all the constraints imposed on the trolley problems.


If I were in a trolley, careening out of control down a track, my first priority should be to find some way to save MYSELF, and any other passengers in the trolley.

People standing on the track are presumably aware that tracks are dangerous places. Standing people are mobile, they can get off the tracks. They should be able to see or hear the trolley on tier own, but as insurance, sounding the bell should be sufficient to deal with the hazards to both groups.

Of greater concern would be nearly residences. If the trolley is out of control, it is not just me and the other passengers, and anyone on the tracks at risk, as a runaway trolley will likely derail at some point. What the tracks look like on both directions beyond the upcoming switch therefore matters a great deal. Does one leg go up a hill, possibly bring the trolley to safe stop? Does one lead to a sharp curve in the middle of a city, with buildings all around? That is a leg to avoid.

Is there some way to bring the trolley to a halt? Don't know? FIND OUT!!!!! Is it dangerous? Well, then before trying it, see if there is ANOTHER way!!!

The virtues of pragmatism, inquisitiveness, flexibility, and if necessary heroism are what is needed on that trolley. Not the rigid narrow death-embracing thinking that the problem as stated encourages.

  • It would be a big mistake, I think, to allow virtue ethics into another pale imitation of a legal code. The best thing about this approach is that it doesn't do that and it would be sad to lose it.
    – Ludwig V
    May 6, 2023 at 18:56
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    Thanks for this answer. I've felt the same way about the presumptions of the Trolley Problem and how it is a poor model of reality - we can never know with 100% certainty what will happen. People have certainly survived being struck by vehicles. Sometimes people just up and die without being struck by a vehicle. Even if a person standing on trolley tracks is deaf and blind, they might feel the vibrations of the oncoming trolley and get off the tracks in time. Even if they are deaf, blind, and can't sense vibration, they might get bored and wander off the tracks in time. Feb 22 at 1:22

So not an expert, but I think virtue ethicists would say that the thing about Trolley problems is that they are problems. You face a dilemma when confronted with the choice, and neither consequence nor hypothetical universal principles really make the difficult nature of the choice go away.

Virtue ethics proposes that different qualities of character can be brought to bear in terms of how such choices might be made. Certainly, one valuable one would be decisiveness. If you hesitate to make up your mind, the outcome will be decided for you - if you valued the five over the one, then you only have that window of time to act otherwise you will lose them.

You could imagine a large range of potential qualities a person might possess that would help in this scenario, but the big one of course is Understanding. Someone who has been through this scenario before, who is aware of the nature and the consequences of the choice and the ability to understand how such decisions relate to the social and material landscape of your world, will be better able to decide than someone dropped into it unprepared.

I don’t think this guides you towards a “right or wrong” answer to the problem, but I guess the idea is that this might really only be something to be determined through praxis. For a far out there example, maybe the outcome might be better in some situations where more people died - that’s something that could very well depend on circumstances, and it might be naive to presume the value of human life as a universal inviolable constant.

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