Ethics[i] or Moral Philosophy is a discipline concerned with what is morally correct or incorrect. With its practical nature, it is associated with a variety of fields, such as philosophy, science, economics, sociology and theology.

An Ethical Dilemma[ii] (Ethical Paradox or Moral Dilemma) is a dispute between alternatives where some ethical principle is bound to get affected, no matter what a person chooses to do in the situation. Analysis of options and their consequences provide the basic elements for decision-making.

Ethical dilemmas encourage individuals to objectively evaluate and consider the circumstances, compelling them, with or without violating another ethical principle, to seek an answer to the problem.  An easy example of an ethical dilemma is the one that all people have faced in our lives: who would you choose, your mother or your father?

The Runaway Trolley, The Pregnant Lady and the Dynamite, The Trapped Mining Crew, The Trial of the Karl Adolf Eichmann, are some of the popular examples of Ethical Dilemmas.


Introduced in an original paper, “The Problem of Abortion and The Doctrine of the Double Effect”, by the English philosopher Philippa Foot in1967, the Trolley Problem is a philosophical paradox and a classic thought experiment on ethics.

While focusing on “The Doctrine of Double Effect”[iii], Foot focused on two consequences:

  1. Foreseeable Consequences
  2.  Intended Consequences

Understand the two implications with the aid of an example: it was ethically and morally wrong to bomb civilians as a way of winning the war during World War II, but it was all right to bomb a military target whether or not civilians died as a side effect.

The Doctrine of Double Effect describes the distinction and use of two effects that action can produce: the one intended for and the one foresaw, but in no way desired. Bombs killing people are the effects that are meant to inflict immediate damage to individuals. Bombing a strategic target is envisaged that the death of civilians was an unintentional result.


[iv]suppose that he (the person) is the driver of a runaway tram which he (the person) can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he (the person) enters is bound to be killed.

The question is why we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer for the less occupied track, while most of us would be appalled at the idea that the innocent man could be framed.”

The General Form of the problem is:

Imagine that you’re seeing a runaway trolley hovering down the tracks towards five people who can’t escape. You’re standing next to a lever that’s going to divert the trolley to a side-track. However, there is one person who is lying on the side-track who can’t escape.

Here are two options at your disposal:

  1. Allowing those five people to get killed by doing nothing.
  2. Pulling the handle and saving those five people by killing that one person on the side-track.

Which choice is more ethical to choose from?


  1. The Fat Man: Judith Jarvis Thompson, in her article, “The Trolley Dilemma”, adds the example of a fat man. Suppose you’re standing on a footbridge over the tram tracks. You can see the trolley hurtling towards five people and there is no lever or switch to divert it. Instead, you’ve got a giant man beside you and you’re confident enough that if you push this man, the trolley would stop. Are you going to push that one person to save those five people?
  • Hospital: Assume that you’re a surgeon. A patient is there for his heart transplant. Five other patients are dying. The five dying patients would be saved by the organs of that one patient.  What would you have done?
  • God VS Zombie Apocalypse: Consider the trolley dilemma again. Now instead of five individuals, a person is stating that he is from the future and claims that if you kill that person, a zombie apocalypse will occur. On the side track, there is God. Who would you rather save? The founder of this universe (as many have stated) or the time traveller? There are further variations to the problem here:
    • Imagine that you’re an atheist.
    • Imagine you don’t believe in moving across time.
  • (York, 2015)[v]There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You can pull a lever and adjust the direction of the trolley, which would lead to the killing of another worker. The first worker has an intended suicide note in his back pocket but it’s in the handwriting of the second worker. The second worker is wearing a T-shirt that says PLEASE HIT ME WITH A TROLLEY, but the T-shirt is borrowed from the first worker.


Consequentialist Approach

Consequentialism[vi], according to the Google dictionary, is the doctrine that an action’s morality is to be judged solely by its consequences. In simple terms, it determines whether an act is morally right depends on its consequences. Many individuals will, for example, argue that lying is morally wrong. But if it helps to save someone’s life by telling a lie, consequentialism says it’s the right thing to do. Two other examples of this approach would be Utilitarianism and Hedonism. Utilitarianism goes by the quote, “greatest good for the greatest number,” while Hedonism suggests that if the result creates satisfaction and prevents suffering, everything is “good.”

This method is examined by critics as unpredictable as the future is uncertain and the result of behaviour is quite difficult to know ahead of time. For instance: Assume that economists could prove that if most of the people were healthier and wealthier and 2% of the poor population would slave, the Global Economy would prosper. Many people would not agree with this situation, but it would be morally right to choose this situation, according to the Consequentialist Approach, because the result is favourable.

Utilitarian Approach

The Utilitarian Approach[vii] was first put forward by Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher of the 18th century. It is generally summed up in the slogan as the “greatest happiness for the greatest number”. It argues that moral judgment is the one that maximizes the well-being of the largest number of people, even if it means sentencing someone to death.

The Principle of Deontology comes out here. This perspective notes that actions such as killing an innocent person are wrong, even if they have good consequences. Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century philosopher, argues that killing someone would be immoral. Pulling the trigger would therefore not be acceptable, but it would not be considered murder to hurt those five people because you are not deliberately harming them.

Neurotransmitter Approach[viii]

The Trolley Dilemma drew the attention of psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists. The utilitarian approach and the deontological approach are outlined in this approach. It also mentions the “kill versus let die” situation, the one (Foot, 1967) was talking about in her paper (intended consequence and foreseeable consequence).

Most recently, as various studies have identified the anatomical regions of the brain involved in moral cognition, a neurobiological approach has given rise to interest. According to the approach, there is a spatial divide and a temporal divide. The solution to the problem is combined with the neurotransmitters used by the brain to perceive objects in a 3D environment. According to (Daniel Z. Lieberman, 2019), the brain uses circuits to process environmental information.

Space can be divided into two concentric circles within the centre of the body namely Peripersonal Space (inner space) and the Extrapersonal Space. Items within the peripersonal space are within the individual’s control, while things within the extrapersonal space are things that we don’t possess, that is, outside of our control. The way we communicate with something we have is different from dealing with something that we need and don’t have. In addition to this spatial divide, there exists a temporal divide which means that things in peripersonal space are experienced in present and things in extrapersonal space are experienced in the future. This is how multiple realms of three-dimensional space are handled by the brain.

The primary neurotransmitter for extrapersonal space is Dopamine. Neurotransmitters for peripersonal space include serotonin, oxytocin, etc.

The Neurotransmitter-based solution to The Trolley Problem

  1. Switch: it involves the neurotransmitter for extrapersonal space, that is, dopamine.
  2. Dopamine orients actions towards an emphasis on optimising the “good”, which is Utilitarianism.
  3. The push condition is included within the peripersonal space that guides individuals to social interactions and promotes empathy. In this case, the focus is directed to the present rather than to the future and as a result, the deontological approach is triggered.

The link between ethical problems such as the Trolley dilemma and how the Three-Dimensional space is processed by our brain, we often tend to prefer the “harm aversion” situation to avoid harming others.

This neurotransmitter approach to the Trolley Problem replaces the philosophic solution with the biological one by describing the different brain mechanisms and the functioning of neurotransmitters and their role in moral and ethical decision-making.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics[ix] is one of the ethical systems favoured by Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Ben Franklin, Nietzsche, and Martha Nussbaum. It differs from Deontology and Consequentialism because it focuses on the character and personality of the individual who performs the action. For instance, in the Trolley Problem, one might ask, “what would Gandhi do in this situation?” This question will expose the moral character of the individual answering it.


Philosophers all over the world have been seeking to find a profound solution to the issue for almost five decades. In circumstances like the trolley dilemma[x], logic and feelings clash, making it difficult for people to decide on realistic and current day-to-day issues such as self-driving cars.

The question remains the same: “What is the solution to ‘The Trolley Problem’?”

Do we have a solution that is right or wrong? Oh, no. It depends on the individual’s viewpoint, intentions, motivations, attitudes and opinions. More uncertainty and turmoil is brought on by variants such as “placing a family member on the side track.”

Like most philosophical problems, The Trolley Problem has no definite solution. Rather it is intended to provoke critical thinking and helps to generate intellectual discourse in which the difficulty of solving moral dilemmas is appreciated.

Most people prefer to avoid the issue entirely by finding new solutions, such as ‘shouting at the individual on the side track’ and saving all of them at once. Another community of citizens argues that justice honours the dignity of human life. Therefore to represent justice in the best possible way, you must find a new solution. Some believe in fate, and hence would just walk away from the tracks and leaving those five people to die. It’s quite easy to choose an alternative, but actually putting yourself in a situation and deciding, changes the direction of the thought process.

Using philosophic tools to find solutions or at least attempt to find a solution is something that has kept The Trolley Dilemma alive for 5 decades.

Seeking a solution to this fundamental puzzle would make things more difficult and complicated. But using this issue to extend the study to day-to-day or realistic issues can help a person make his or her life easier.




[iv] (Foot, 1967)

[v] (York, 2015)






Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

If you are interested in participating in the same, do let me know.
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