The Trolley Dilemma
and how it relates to ethical communication

About The Trolley Dilemma

The "Trolley Dilemma" (or the "Trolley Problem") consists of a series of hypothetical scenarios developed by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. Each scenario presents an extreme environment that tests the subject's ethical prowess. In 1985, American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson scrutinized and expanded on Foot's ideas in The Yale Law Journal.

Below you will find one of the Trolley Dilemma scenarios as stated by Thomson, followed by a multiple choice question. Each answer describes a unique reaction to the dilemma, and correlates with one of the five ethical paradigms of Utilitarianism, Deontology, Divine Command Theory, Ethical Relativism, and Virtue Ethics. Clicking on an answer will send you to a page that describes the corresponding paradigm and offers insight into its meaning in relation to ethical communication.

Scenario: Trolley Driver

"Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workmen, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas they don't work. Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately,...there is one track workman on that spur of track. He can no more get off the track in time than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto him" (Thomson 1985, 1395).
1 Track Workman Cable Car 5 Track Workmen

What would you do? (click on your answer below)

  1. Throw the switch in order to maximize well-being (five people surviving is greater than one).
  2. Throw the switch because you are a virtuous person, and saving five lives is the type of charitable and compassionate act a virtuous person performs.
  3. Do not throw the switch because that would be a form of killing, and killing is inherently wrong.
  4. Do not throw the switch because you are a Christian, and the Ten Commandments teach that killing is against the will of God.
  5. Do not throw the switch because you feel aiding in a person's death would be culturally inappropriate and illegal.