Would you kill one person to save five?

Today we will explore 2 different moral dilemmas which are based on the rule ‘Thou shalt not kill’. While none of the options provided conclude with a correct moral answer,  I find it insightful to understand others opinions about the matter.

A tram is running down a track and is out control. If it continues on its course unchecked and undiverted, it will run over five people who have been tied to the tracks. You have the chance to divert it onto another track simply by pulling a lever. If you do this, though, the tram will kill a man who happens to be standing on this other track. What should you do?

Would you do it? Or would you let it hit 5 people?

I decided to collect my own data. 85% of the people thought that it would be best to kill one person rather than many. Interestingly, all of the people between the ages of 25-36 agreed to kill the five people, when asked why some people quoted ‘thou shalt not kill’, even though they were sympathetic towards the five people more.

In a Utilitarian’s perspective,  we have to promote the best conditions for the greatest number of people. Five people are more than one therefore the one should die.

Rule Utilitarians would mostly agree but not for the same reasons, they don’t believe that judging every action by its consequence is correct, they believe that we should establish some moral rules which will be best in the long term (meaning the greatest number of people happy). In specific cases it may not lead to the best consequence.

Act Utilitarians wouldn’t even have to think about the moral dilemma! Of course they would pull the lever.

The next example I will write about is extremely similar to the previous one, in fact it is a slightly altered version. What if instead of being relatively distant to the person you are killing you were right next to them! would you still have the same reaction? Would you sympathize more?

This one is called ”the fat man on the bridge”.

A runaway tram threatens to kill five people. A very heavy man is sitting on a wall on a bridge spanning the track. You can stop the train by pushing him off the bridge onto the track in front of the train. He will die, but the five will be saved. (You can’t opt to jump in front of the tram yourself since you aren’t big enough to stop it.)

In a utilitarian point of view, the answer would be the same as subjectively it is the same thing, save five people or save one.

However 90% of the people who said they would pull the lever in the other scenario changed their answer to not getting involved. This is because the physical act of pushing the person to stop the tram shows they intended to kill the person rather than it being an unfortunate side effect. The act of touching the person created a more emotional response as they understood the innocence of the person and how they shouldn’t be murdered.

Overall, while ‘thou shalt not kill’ applied to each scenario, there are many different aspects to look at. Most people acted on their emotional response while others looked at it subjectively.

I WOULD LOVE TO KNOW YOUR OPINIONS ON THE MATTER! THANK YOU.

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28 thoughts on “Would you kill one person to save five?”

  1. Depends on. If I know that 1 pers – I’ll save him. If I know anybody from 5 – I’ll save them. Also. I’d like to know who is the bad guy in that dilemma. Because I’d prefer to kill the bad guy & save good people.

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    1. There are no good or bad people in the dilemma. However I believe you can refer to the person you are pushing or pulling the lever to kill as more innocent as they don’t know they are going to die. Thank you for writting your point of view

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  2. Thought-provoking discussion. I agree that people would react differently depending on variables and options involved. For example, I also noticed the “escape” possibility in this sentence – “If you do this, though, the tram will kill a man who happens to be standing on this other track”. The person who is standing on this other track is not tied to it, surely? Some thought may be that if you pull the lever to save the five people on another track, perhaps – perhaps – that other person standing alone may be saved by stepping down or running away from the danger.

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    1. While that is true, I believe that the assumption is that the tram is going too fast for him to move out of the way. Nonetheless If I was in that situation I would assume that he could move because it’s the easiest route out of the situation.

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  3. I made a long response, but decided not to bombard your comment section with an entire essay. So instead I give you a shorter version: At first glance, one thinks there is a right answer. But the answer is, there IS no right answer. The purpose of morals is ultimately to retain our humanity. And the aim of any moral dilemma is therefore not to choose path X or Y, but rather to answer the question ”How do we go about this situation while not losing our humanity?”

    The thing is, we fail at doing so if we either [A] blindly follow old religious or historical dogma, whatever that dogma says [examples of who did that; the Inquisition – who were convinced they were servants of paradise], or else [B] use cold calculation á la “the ends justify the means” [examples of who did that; the Nazis – who also were convinced they were servants of paradise]. Both those paths are blind alleys, and end with us losing our humanity. We are condemned to freedom, and are ultimately responsible for our actions, but the paths A and B mean hiding from that responsibility. ”A” means outsourcing responsibility to dogma, and ”B” means degenerating into cold machines who function like dead calculators, i.e. outsourcing responsibility to a perverted idea of logic. Both those paths constitute a loss of our humanity.

    The only way to “win” at retaining our humanity is by either pulling the lever or else don’t – but making our choice with a sense of deep dread, doubt and internal conflict, while being horrified by the situation and afterwards doubting whether we did make the right choice or not.

    Subsequently, my response is:

    I don’t know what I would do. But I’d feel like shit. And that feeling of being a worthless scumbag, is me remaining human. And that in turn, is the only win anyone could ever hope to achieve, faced with this moral dilemma.

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  4. This is couched as a paradox, but it is really paradoxical by the Consequentialist frame as adopted by Utilitarians. It’s an important premise of the thought experiment that the prospective targets are strangers—rather, we possess no knowledge of these persons—, so we do not have the luxury of assessing the so-called value of any of these people. We don’t know if we know them—if they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if they are ‘rich’ or poor’ if one has the cure for cancer and world hunger.

    All else being equal, if one is an antinatalist, one might consider the best action to be the elimination of the greatest number of people. But there is no intrinsic reason to place an economic value on these people.

    One of my favourite variations—The Transplant Problem:

    Another problem for utilitarianism is that it seems to overlook justice and rights. One common illustration is called Transplant. Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save all five of their lives while killing the “donor”. There is no other way to save any of the other five patients.

    Source: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/

    A short YA story by Ursula La Guin, sums it up nicely in The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas: https://philosophicsblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/the-ones-who-walk-away/

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    1. There is no “one reaction” as nobody has the same perspective. Personally I believe that most people will choose saving their relative due to their initial emotional state, however they would feel regret later on. Another option would be to save the 5 people which would be the utilitarian point of view. It is less likely though because of the emotional connection with the one person.

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  5. What a difficult situation! I would look for a way to sacrifice myself (instead of that one person) in order for the other five to survive. And I am a chicken, so I don’t say that lightly. It’s just that I couldn’t pull a lever that’d kill one person without TRYING something else.

    If I couldn’t figure out how to do sacrifice myself, I’d let the one person live if for no other reason than to buy time to think of a different way to save the other five.

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  6. To be honest, I would think if there was a situation where no one could die first. But if someone had to die, then I would see who the people are and make my decision based on that.

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  7. I would ask for divine intervention but if none was forthcoming I would chose pulling the lever on the assumption of the belief that if God put the decision in my hands he trusted me to have faith. I would then pull the lever.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am fascinated by the horror of the second statistic. Sometimes I think I would prefer to be a ‘lesser’ species. I do everything I can to avoid running over a squirrel on the road.

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  9. If you feel that you cannot deal with the responsibility for the one death, then you would chose to let the five die. If you didn’t involve your future feelings of guilt, you’d chose to let the one die.

    The problem with not letting yourself feel guilt, however, is the certainty that you will think of people more and more as an abstract concept…

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  10. Ah, what a terrible situation to be in. Either way, one in this situation is choosing to kill. What is the difference between killing 5 and killing 1 from his point of view . If he/she chooses to pull the lever and kill one, can he in good conscience console himself by saying, “Yes, I killed 1 but saved 5 in turn.” Although, understandably, from a bystander’s perspective, 5 saved would be better than 1 killed.

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  11. They always say on my favorite Syfy series “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” If I were forced to participate in either scenario, Id save the most people. (the five)

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