The Train Crash Dilemma

You have, no doubt, at least heard of the train crash dilemma. Put simply, it goes something like this: A train is approaching a two-way switch. On the currently selected track, there is a group of five people who will be hit if nothing changes. On the other track, there is a single person who will be safe if nothing changes. You are in a position to be able to change the switch direction. Would you act (change the switch) or do nothing (leave the switch alone)?

This is one of those “moral” questions that is usually presented as a choice between saving the few or saving the many. Lately, these types of dilemmas are used in arguments against autonomous cars by disingenuously claiming that the AI won’t be able to make a moral judgement in an emergency situation. In actual fact, it’s all just so much bullshit since human beings don’t make moral decisions during emergency situations either. There just isn’t time in most cases!

Anyway, back to the question at hand. In total isolation with no other information, it would seem that the obvious choice is to redirect the train so the one dies instead of the five. However, it is that very lack of information that makes either choice suspect. Suppose the one is a child? Or perhaps the one is a genious who will be able to save millions if you let them live? Perhaps the five are convicted murderers who escaped prison and have been on a rampage? What if switching the train causes the train to crash and  kill all six? Or causes it to crash into a passenger train further down the line? I’m sure if you think about it, you can come up with nearly endless possiblities that could be used to justify either choice.

We could think about just what we would do in this situation if it ever came up in reality. That would be leaving aside the fact that it will nearly certainly never come up in reality for various reasons ranging from people generally not being dumb enough to hang out on tracks for any length of time and generally being smart enough to get off the tracks if a train is coming to various physical security measures taken along many tracks. And then there’s the fact that you are seriously unlikely to be anywhere near a relevant switch point even if the rest of the situation arises, and even if you were, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to move the switch anyway.

Also, there is the further point that all six people who are on the tracks are probably idiots. Why are they on the tracks in the first place? Why can’t the vacate the tracks? Surely they can hear, feel, or see the train coming? Are they tied up? If so, who tied them up? Some sort of cartoon villain? (And it gets less and less plausible from there.)

Now let’s look at the other personal ramfications of acting or not acting. First, if you act, you will certainly pick up legal liability because you made a deliberate act that led to the death of an individual. You will likely find yourself facing a manslaughter charge in addition to any charges related to interfering with the operating railroad. On the other hand, if you do nothing, there cannot be any legal liability since you neither interfered with the operating railroad nor did you take any action that directly led to anyone’s death. There is also a very good chance that you will be better able to live with the inaction than an action that directly causes someone’s death, regardless what you might think when faced with the abstract question. (Any psychologists want to chime in on that?)

I think you can see what my answer is for this dilemma. I would simply do nothing. Well, not quite. I would walk away. Yes, that seems inconsiderate, immoral, or at least selfish. Even so, doing nothing in this case is almost certainly the smart choice.

You might now be wondering if there is a variation that would prompt me to actually act. I suspect there are circumstances where I might act. Say differing proportions of people, or if I have better knowledge of who’s where, etc. However, in the absence of any further information and with the question as written, in my considered opinion, the correct choice is to do nothing or simply walk away. In fact, I think that should be the default choice for any such moral dilemma, especially in the absence of any compelling reason to do anything else and faced with the likelihood of great personal inconvenience or harm as the result of acting.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say on this for now.

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