One of the best lines from the 2012 spy thriller Argo is when the CIA director asks if our protagonist had a “better bad idea” than setting up a fake sci-fi movie production to smuggle American citizens out of Iran. The reply comes promptly: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir, by far.” Sometimes, the protagonist knows, there are only bad options and it’s about finding the best one. In the absence of real-world dilemmas of life and death, thought experiments help us think through how we’d handle similar situations. The famous Trolley Problem is one of those thought experiments. It has spawned numerous witty variations. Here are the best ones.
What Is the Original Trolley Problem?
The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment about an ethical dilemma involving a streetcar, several unfortunate people tied to the tracks and some poor guy entrusted with the decision over their lives and deaths. Philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed a version of the moral conundrum in 1967. However, credit for the meme comic, as most know it today, goes to philosopher Jesse Prinz, who appeared to have first posted them in the 2000s.
The scenario is simple yet thrilling: A runaway trolley is threatening to kill five people tied to the tracks. A single individual (you) has the power to divert the trolley to a different set of tracks by pulling a lever. The only problem is that on the other track, there’s one person tied to the tracks. You have two options and two options only.
- Do nothing and have the trolley run over the five people.
- Pull the lever and have the trolley kill the single person tied to the tracks.
What’s the right thing to do? What does your intuition, what does your rational mind say? And how would your decision change if, instead of pulling a lever, you’d have to push a fat man on the tracks to slow down the trolley?
The Ethics Behind the Trolley Problem
The Trolley Problem (and the related so-called Fat Man Problem) highlights the contrast between utilitarianism and deontological ethics. Utilitarianism suggests that the morally right action is the one that maximises happiness or minimises suffering. Even if it means sacrificing one person to save many. Deontology argues that some actions are inherently right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. Sacrificing one person to save others is therefore morally unacceptable.
Obviously, there’s no perfect choice. Leaving the lever alone would knowingly cause passive harm to the five poor fellows on the tracks. A failure to render assistance if you will. Killing the one hapless bloke by pulling the lever would be an active intentional killing, making the decision much more personal. And we haven’t even talked about the role of emotions in your hypothetical decision-making. In any case, we’re not here to take a deep dive into ethics, we’re here to see how far the meme can be pushed.
9 Trolley Problem Variations
Here are the nine variations of the popular Trolley Problem meme. It’s hard to find the original creators so let me know if you know where they originated.
1. Ship of Theseus Trolley
Scenario: If you do not pull the lever, one person will be crushed to death instantly. If you do pull the lever, the trolley will divert into a thousand-mile stretch of track with one person tied down at the end of it. If as the trolley rolls down this thousand-mile track, a crew systemically switches out every piece of the original trolley with a replacement part. Did the trolley that you diverted kill the man?
Context: This variation combines our meme with another popular thought experiment, namely the Ship of Theseus. Theseus was a mythical Greek king whose ship was preserved by the Greeks over time. Wood rots. So the planks had to be replaced one by one. But if all of the planks of Theseus’ ship are replaced, should it still be considered the ship of Theseus? Combining the two concepts opens up a new path to rationalisation. If we can convince ourselves that the rebuilt trolley won’t be the same, we may be able to justify pulling that lever after all.
2. Grandfather Trolley Problem
Scenario: You are a time traveller. A runaway trolley is heading to kill five people. If you pull the lever only one will die but the person on the other track is your grandfather and your parents haven’t even been born yet. What happens if you pull the lever?
Context: The best solution to this version of the dilemma depends on the time travel theory you buy into. The person holding the lever looks suspiciously like Marty McFly from Back to the Future. This suggests that by pulling the lever you will erase yourself from history. But if you erase yourself from history, you won’t be able to travel back in time to pull the lever. Will that cause the universe to implode? Who knows? How would you solve this paradoxical situation?
3. Veil of Ignorance Trolley Problem
Scenario: In this scenario, you don’t know where you’ll be in the trolley problem. However, you have to choose the scenario in advance. Would it be in your personal interest for the lever to be pulled?
Context: The veil of ignorance was devised by philosopher John Rawls to prevent biased decisions about societal rules or structures. He argued that our reasoning tended to be influenced by our personal situations. Imagine you had to come up with a new system of government. What you don’t know in advance is whether you’ll be a poor woman or a wealthy child in that society. A member of the aristocracy or an illiterate factory worker. Applied to the trolley problem, ask yourself: Would you like that lever to be pulled even if you could be one of the people tied to any of the tracks?
4. Sisyphus Trolley Problem
Scenario: The lever only changes the course of the track for 5 seconds before switching back to the first path, where it will kill five people. You must keep pulling the lever in order to save these people (neither you nor the captives need to sleep or eat because this is a Greek myth or something). There is no one else nearby, and no way of leaving or reaching help. Do you keep pulling the lever in the hope that somehow these circumstances will change, or do you decide that this is an inherently futile act and that to keep all of you in this state of imprisoned limbo for all eternity was more cruel than death?
Context: Sisyphus was a Greek mythical king who was punished by the god of the dead, Hades, for cheating death (twice). Sisyphus was given the task of rolling a giant boulder up a hill. Only every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll down to the bottom again. The Sisyphean task, one that is impossible to complete, was born. So will you keep beating the dead horse or keep pulling that Sisyphean lever in the hopes that the circumstances change in your favour?
5. The Monty Trolley Problem
Scenario: You are forced to blindly choose a path for a trolley to travel down, knowing one has only one person tied to it and the other two have five. As the trolley approaches, one pathway, which you did not choose, is revealed to you to have five people tied to it. Is it in your moral best interest to switch tracks to the unknown path that you did not originally choose?
Context: This variation combines our dilemma with a probability puzzle called the Monty Hall Problem. Named after the host of the American game show Let’s Make a Deal, it asks you to choose between three doors. Behind one door is a prize. Behind the others, there’s disappointment. Imagine you picked door one. The host would then open door three to reveal it as one of the wrong doors. The question then becomes if you’d be better off switching your original choice to door two. Now what would you do if lives were at stake?
6. Fat Man Trolley Problem
Scenario: The runaway trolley is heading towards our well-known railroad switch. However, you find yourself on a bridge, cursed with the opportunity to push a fat man on the tracks. Do you push the fat man on the tracks to prevent the trolley problem from occurring in the first place?
Context: This meme variation cunningly combines the two original thought experiments and memes from the beginning: the Trolley Problem and the Fat Man Problem. Your choices are to actively kill a person to take the burden from your friend at the lever. Or to let the fat man live and shift the responsibility to someone else. A seemingly easy choice.
7. Hedonist’s Trolley Problem
Scenario: The trolley on the track is heading down a track with six people tied to it. If you pull the lever, it will switch to A but won’t do the totally sick loop-da-loop.
Context: Hedonists, of course, believe that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the guiding principles of human behaviour. This tongue-in-cheek variation puts that belief to the test. There’s certainly pain associated with letting five people die. But at least the trolley will be clearing that sick loop…?
8. Actual Trolley Problem
Scenario: You’re not the one pulling the lever. You’re part of the group of five people lying on the tracks hoping the person makes a decision that doesn’t kill you. There’s no decision for you to make. You may have hope, though.
Context: Truth be told, the Trolley Problem has been criticised as extreme and unrealistic. This cynical version of the meme circumvents that criticism by suggesting that the average person is hardly a decision-maker in real life. More often than not we have no agency and our hands are tied. In this case literally.
9. Actual Actual Trolley Problem
Scenario: In our final scenario, you’re not only not the person pulling the lever. You can also comfortably abandon all hope that the finely dressed gentleman entrusted with operating the railroad switch will decide in your favour as he has been handsomely rewarded by his fellow peer.
Context: This cynical yet relatable version of the trolley problem takes the previous iteration one step further. The implication: Moral decisions by those in power are not made by carefully weighing all available options, consequences and moral implications. In a corrupt society, personal relationships and money guide people’s decisions. All we can do is watch them do it with impunity.
Sometimes there are only bad options. If our Trolley Problem meme variations show us anything it’s that there are always people who can make the dilemma of choosing the best bad option even worse. But also more entertaining.