‘Revisiting the Trolley Problem’ by Andrew Bell


Following our link to Dandelion Sleeves post ‘Reinterpreting the Trolley Problem’, Andrew Bell has written this thought provoking response:

Revisiting the trolley problem: a cautionary note.

The self evident truth of the value of the preservation of life is rightly stated to be the best steer through the ‘Trolley Problem’.

But when we came to the gatekeeper, the only person who has actual control of the lever, Kerry simply tells us that their primary concern and only impetus for action, is to the preservation and continuation of the runaway train. But I wonder whether this is true?

Are there not two actors involved with the operation of the lever at this point: the railway company, represented here by the gatekeeper, and a human being, faced with a moral dilemma?

The Railway Company can’t make the decision because the situation has progressed way beyond the running of a railway and the preservation of its assets.

It is a human being, albeit disguised as a gatekeeper, who is faced with this dilemma, not the Company. The polarity has shifted from the material to the higher moral and ethical realm, which is the only place it can be resolved. With this shift, the Company has to move backstage. We are no longer in Kansas any more, as they used to say.

All this is underpinned by an important principle. It has long been understood that governments and institutions, including railway companies, must always trust individuals in their roles, respect their rights and their value, and allow them to stand or fall by their own merits and their own decisions. That is how people can live happily together in communities and prosper.

That is why even the gatekeeper is faced with a moral decision and is gifted with the freedom to make it, for better or for worse.

4 thoughts on “‘Revisiting the Trolley Problem’ by Andrew Bell

  1. Hi Andrew. This is a really interesting piece and it throws wide open a massive hornets nest. I was deliberately vague about the exact natures of both the gatekeeper and the trolley itself. In the context of the thought experiment the gatekeeper might be a single individual or might be a conglomerate. There is no automatic reason to assume it is even human. It could just as easily be an artificial intelligence, pre-programmed according to certain, set logarithms. If the gatekeeper is indeed human, in the employment or service of ‘the train company’ – whoever or whatever that might be – then it’s not entirely obvious exactly how much freedom that person is “gifted” with. Freedom, like power, is far from evenly distributed. I can’t help but think of the Yale/Milgram Shock Experiment. There’s a short video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr5cjyokVUs

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    • Hi Kerry,
      Thank you for your comments.
      I would like to think that, if the gatekeeper is human, he/she would recognise the changed situation, put aside the demands of their employer, and address the ethical issues you raise in your blog. But I agree, this is not what happens in real life. We now have algorithms, robotic technology and systems designed to control people as well as machines.
      The Milgram Experiment (thanks for drawing it to my attention), is indeed shocking and as others who have analysed it have found, its success depends on whether the participant indentifies with the success of the experiment or the plight of the victim or, indeed, on any number of things, not least whether the experimenter/programmer has preprogrammed (brainwashed) the participant.
      I recently read a well-researched piece by a journalist on how China is slowly becoming an AI-powered totalitarian State with the aim of forming a new kind of citizen who has fully internalised the demands of the State. It means that agencies of the State will never have to intervene to correct the citizen’s behaviour, because the citizen has done it for them in advance. To think that this is already happening is really quite scary. It is an invasion of our system of values and everything we ever thought about ethics and morality.

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      • I came across a throwaway comment on Twitter that stopped me in my tracks. Someone was musing that when George Orwell wrote 1984 he was not imagining that we would invite surveillance of the Big Brother kind into our lives and homes. But that is exactly what we seem have done with Alexa etc. I don’t know anything about the AI situation in China but I can imagine that State control of citizens of the sort you describe could almost imperceptibly creep up on people, out of something that seemed useful in everyday life and perhaps appeared benign. It really is scary.

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