Group Dynamics and the Public Sphere


What is the “trolley problem”?

Aseries of studies have been done on the “trolley problem”, which is a moral dilemma first thought up by the philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson. The scenario involves a trolley that is hurtling down the track out of control after the trolley driver has become unconscious. If nothing is done, the trolley will hit five workmen on the tracks who don’t see the oncoming trolley. You can save the workmen by throwing a switch that will divert the trolley onto another track. However, there is one workman on the other track. Will you throw the switch, sacrificing one man to save five others?

In these circumstances, most people say yes. From a purely rational standpoint, it makes sense. However, if the only way to save the five workmen is to throw a large man in front of the trolley, most people say they would not do it. When we have close contact with the person we are hurting, our moral decisions are likely to be based more on emotion than on reason alone. Likewise, when people considered these two scenarios during fMRI brain imaging, different parts of the brain lit up for each scenario.


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