Who Would You Kill?

Have you heard of the Trolley Problem?


I’m not sure who first posed the dilemma, but I know it has spawned a ton of cool ethical thought experiments that really twist your mind, make you sweat and hope that if you are ever, ever in one of the moral dilemmas posed, someone will just bonk you on the head instead of making you come up with an answer.

Fun stuff.

So, let’s try it here: Say you are standing near the tracks and you see a trolley coming at you out of control and you know (you know because “they” tell you) that unless you pull the lever in front of you (oh yeah, there’s a lever in front of you) that all the people  (say ten) on the trolley are going to die in a horrible, firey crash.

Easy one, right? You pull the lever.


Now “they” tell you that there’s another person standing in the place that the trolley goes when you pull the lever, who is unaware that they are standing in THE place. Let’s picture a grandmotherly figure standing there with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a big, happy smile.  Now, when you pull the lever to save the ten people, the trolley will jump the track and kill the grandmotherly figure. (The good part is she won’t know what hit her. Okay, I made that part up, she may.)

Now do you pull the lever? Or do you let ten people die because you’re squeamish about squishing grandma?

Upping the stakes: Say, in order to save the ten people and stop the train, you have to actually push grandma onto the tracks, knowing she will be killed. Is one life worth ten? Will you feel like a murderer even if you’ve saved ten lives by killing? Or will you feel like a hero with some residual guilt and remorse?

When you’ve thought about your response, read on:

Interestingly enough, most people are okay with pulling the lever and grandma dying indirectly from their action. However, pushing someone to their death–even if it means saving ten people–is not acceptable. Indirect death is okay, but death directly from action is not.

What they’ve found when an MRI machine scanned the brains of people while working out these moral dilemmas is that the first scenario–pulling the level and indirectly killing someone–activates the part of the brain used for solving problems and reasoning.  But, the part of the brain that lit up while pondering pushing someone to their death was the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and how we perceive emotions  in others–empathy.


Take away or damage this part of the brain and you have someone without the ability to feel and without the ability to feel for another person. You have a sociopath. This doesn’t mean all brain damaged people are sociopaths or all sociopaths have brain damage.

In fact, this test was given to people with damage in this brain region, and their answer was to push the person because “logically” sacrificing one life to save ten was the right thing to do. In their mind, pushing grandma is good not evil.

So, how about you? Let’s up the stakes again. What if one of the people in the trolley was your child or mother? Would you push the person to their death then? What if the person to be squished by the trolley was your child or mother? Would you let the other ten people die to save them?

What if a person broke into your home and pointed a gun at your child or mother? Would you shoot first?

If you answered no–that you wouldn’t push the person and you wouldn’t shoot first–do you feel that doing nothing–that standing by impassively and causing death–is more morally right than doing something and causing death?

Me? I think I would pull the lever, not push grandma…and shoot first.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    September 3, 2013 at 7:11 am

    An interesting conundrum, Shannon! I never knew that about the different parts of the brain being activated depending upon the nature of the problem (or its variants). Cool stuff, although with those black-and-white puzzles, I’m always trying to find a way around it – yell to grandma, have the people jump out, go all-MacGyver with the trolley-track switch, etc.

    While I don’t have an answer to the trolley puzzler, the home invasion question is a no-brainer: hell, yeah! 😉

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    September 3, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Oh, that’s interesting, Kathy. I didn’t even think about trying to yell to grandma or your other creative solutions. While, I’m not sure that these kinds of answers address the moral problem, it does show what a creative, out of the box thinker you are. 🙂

  • Reply
    Portal Through Time | Catie Rhodes
    September 3, 2013 at 9:17 am

    […] If you’ve got time, cruise on over to the misterio press blog to answer this question: Who Would You Kill?  […]

  • Reply
    Catie Rhodes
    September 3, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Take saving someone I cared about–husband or family–out of the equation, and I’d probably hesitate too long and kill them all. If I killed Stranger-Granny to save the strangers on the trolly, would that really be the right thing? Would that be what was supposed to happen? Then, once it was all over, I’d feel guilty and worry that I did the wrong thing.

    Now. Add my husband or family back in, and I’d die fighting to save them. No hesitation and no quarter. I don’t even know that I’d worry if I did the wrong thing later. The horror, the horror.

  • Reply
    Jim Olson
    September 3, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Timing would also be key to answering the no-win scenario. Personally, if I only had seconds to decide, I would probably do the more selfish thing (save the grandma) even though it would kill more people in the long run, because I’ve had an emotional connection with her (cookies!). I would save family before anything else, no matter the amount of people that would be killed because of the consequence. Needless to say I wouldn’t be a good companion in the zombie apocalypse unless you’re related to me.

    But if I had a longer amount of time to contemplate my actions, the outcome may be different (except in the case of family). I would probably save the ten people instead.

    But who knows. Perhaps I would decide that having 10 people dead instead of a grandma, would make a better story in the national news about railroad safety, and a commission would be formed to look into it, in consequence saving hundreds of lives in future railway accidents.

    • Reply
      shannon esposito
      September 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

      LOL! Now, that’s a different twist. Sacrifice a a few people for future generations to be safer. I think you’ve officially thought about this too much now. 🙂

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    September 3, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    See, that’s where I’d have a problem, too, Catie… hesitation. But, then that just means that you do nothing and is letting someone (or 10 someones) die the same as someone dying because you took action to save someone else? The horror, yes indeed.

    • Reply
      Jim Olson
      September 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      No, the horror would be not realizing that there was a third track, and the 10 people knew they were in a safe spot. :p

  • Reply
    Donna Coe-Velleman
    September 3, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    I like both Catie’s and KB’s answers. Like KB I’d try everything I could think of to try to stop the situation from happening. And like Caite I’d feel guilty. But when it comes to protecting my family I’m the same as these ladies – you better watch out!

    • Reply
      shannon esposito
      September 10, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Donna! Seems like a consensus that we will do anything to protect the people we love. I wonder if that’s why empathy is so important in society. Seems like love is just a ramped up form of it.

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