Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Trolley Problem

Thinking about the trolley problem can help prepare you for a difficult situation.

My family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1974 and experienced for the first time the thrill of riding a trolley. As my mother later remarked, "It scared me half to death, so I rode it two more times just for fun." Looking out the side windows of these aging steel carriages while crossing a 60 foot ravine over a wooden bridge with no guard rails often elicited a longing for one more chance to visit the confessional of your particular house of worship.

In the 1970's, a trip to town on a trolley was a religious experience.

In psychology circles the Trolley Problem is a device that has been used since the late 1960's to test moral decision making. In the test, you are standing on a bridge next to a large man. A train (or trolley) is about to pass under the bridge and will shortly strike and kill five people who are walking, unaware, on the railroad tracks.

You quickly (and correctly) deduce that you can save the five people by moving something large in front of the train, thus stopping/derailing it. For the purposes of discussion, the man standing next to you is sufficiently large, and your two choices are (and there are no others, you must choose one of these); do nothing and let the five people die, or push the large man onto the tracks, thus stopping the train, saving the five, but killing the large man.

Intellectually, killing one person to save five is an easy call. But could you do it? Could you actively, purposefully, intentionally kill a person, even if it meant saving five others. Again, you do not get to change the conditions of the test and for every clever "out" you come up with, I can change the test. For instance, you could sacrifice yourself by jumping in front of the train. I would counter that you are shackled, or injured, or too small.

The point is; you must choose. In the case of the Trolley Problem your choices are to either cause a person's death by your action, or allow five people to die by your inaction. Can you kill, even if it is to say another person (even yourself)? As a personal observation, if you find this exercise to be "simple", you may have "issues."

Some people cannot; under any circumstances, take another person's life, even if their own life is in immediate peril.

The point of this post is neither to advocate for or against killing in self defense, but rather to get you to think through your personal ethics and decide if you could, would, or can't - before the decision is forced upon you. Consider all situations.

  • Could you kill to save your wallet or purse?
  • Could you kill to avoid being dragged into a car?
  • Could you kill if *maybe* the next action an assailant took would knock you out?
  • Could you kill to save your child?
  • Could you kill to save someone else's child?

As a martial artist, you should know who you are, you should understand your moral parameters, and to the best of your ability you should know what boundaries, if any, you place upon yourself.


  1. ... Kill one to save five - logic says "yes", unless you insert a possibility that the "large man" is the one who if not killed, will father a next genius who will discover a cure for cancer or something else unattainable as of right now. What do you do then? Kill five now to save thousands later. I think often what we say in the middle of a discussion with our friends, will be quite different from how we act when the situation presents itself. As of right now, my answer is "yes" to all of the questions above. However, if I were confronted with an assailant in real life - I don't know what instincts of mine will or will not kick in. I don't know if I will be able to pull a trigger, use martial art skills, or if I will freeze and let myself be hurt. That's another aspect about martial arts: it does/should teach us about who we are, discovering the hidden alcoves of our personalities. Somehow, in ways that I cannot put in words, training in TSD have already changed me. I do "feel different" when I enter the dojang on a level that is not seen but only felt. If you take martial art( or any other art of that matter) seriously, it DOES make you evaluate your morals, your weaknesses, strengths, boundaries in your actions, your relationships, and shows you what you are made of..

  2. Wow, your thoughts are really practical issues that a martial artist should think about. When trouble/unexpected comes, we really need to make choices; even if we avoid making a choice that's a decision still and the consequences is our responsibility.

    Martial Arts Club Mansfield

  3. What a great article to demonstrate how martial arts can help you make better decisions! A lot of people have no problem "saying" they would easily throw the big man in front to save the 5 people.. But if/when that moment ever came up, their easy answer isn't so easy anymore. People naturally want to save everyone, and in some instances, it's not possible.

    I've actually just wrote a blog called "Martial Arts Builds Confidence in Children". People don't really think it can, but it does! If you could give it a quick read and let me know your thoughts, I'd love to have your feedback! Thanks and great article!


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