Our AI Philosophers tackle the Trolley Problem

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Our AI Philosophers tackle the Trolley Problem

Trolley problem is the name given to a thought experiment in philosophy and psychology. 

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics about a fictional scenario in which an onlooker has the choice to save 5 people in danger of being hit by a trolley, by diverting the trolley to kill just 1 person. 

The term is often used more loosely with regard to any choice that seemingly has a trade-off between what is good and what sacrifices are "acceptable," if at all.

This is the question as we posited  it to our AI Philosophers:

  • You are riding in a trolley without functioning brakes, headed toward a switch in the tracks.
  • On the current track stand five people who stand to be killed if the trolley continues on its path.
  • You have access to a switch that would make the trolley change to the other track, but another individual stands there.
  • That person is certain to be killed if the switch is activated.
  • Do you switch tracks or not?


Here is the response:

I can explain the reasoning behind different ethical perspectives that might influence one's decision in the trolley problem.

  1. Utilitarianism: A utilitarian would argue that the best action is the one that maximizes overall happiness or minimizes suffering. In this case, they would likely choose to switch tracks, as it would save five people at the cost of one person's life. The reasoning here is that the net outcome of saving more lives would lead to a greater overall good.

  2. Deontological Ethics: A deontologist follows a set of moral rules or principles, regardless of the consequences. In this scenario, a deontologist might argue that it is wrong to intentionally cause harm to an innocent person, even if it saves others. Thus, they may choose not to switch tracks, as doing so would involve actively causing harm to the individual on the other track.

  3. Virtue Ethics: A virtue ethicist would consider the character traits and virtues that a morally good person should exhibit in making a decision. In this case, the focus is on the agent's character rather than the specific action. A virtue ethicist might argue that a compassionate and courageous person would choose to minimize harm by switching tracks, but they might also argue that a person of integrity would not want to cause harm to an innocent individual. The answer would depend on how the virtue ethicist balances these considerations.

  4. Rights-based Ethics: A rights-based approach would emphasize the rights and dignity of all individuals involved. In the trolley problem, the rights-based ethicist might argue that all individuals have a right to life and that deliberately causing the death of an innocent person (by switching tracks) would be a violation of that person's rights. In this case, the rights-based ethicist might choose not to switch tracks.

In summary, the decision to switch tracks or not in the trolley problem depends on the ethical framework one chooses to follow. Different ethical perspectives prioritize different values, and as a result, they might arrive at different conclusions in this dilemma.



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