The Trolley Problem: An Ethical Dilemma


When I was first formally introduced to ethics last summer, my professor quickly pointed out to me a distinction between consequentialist and categorical reasoning. Consequentialist thinking looks exclusively at the future state of affairs caused by the action in evaluating how moral or rational it is, while the categorical camp deals with the intrinsic differences in the act itself, putting aside its results. Mill’s utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number demonstrates consequentialism, and Kant’s categorical imperative serves as an example for the latter. In Kant’s imperative, certain actions like lying, cheating, or stealing (which actions we choose specifically matter less) are unquestionably ruled unethical due to their intrinsic turpitude and breach of rights—there are no exceptions.

The trolley problem helped me crystalize the tension between these two types of thinking, which are practically mirror images of each other in what they focus on. In each hypothetical situation, you’re obligated to choose either one or the other option.

Case #1: You’re the conductor of a train with broken brakes that’s barreling towards five railroad workers who are hammering away at the tracks at this unseemly hour due to a scheduling miscommunication. You’ve found a lever that you can use to turn the train onto a branching track on which a helpless tourist has found himself. Do you turn the lever or not?

Case #2: In a similar scenario, a runaway train is headed straight for another five railroad workers, but this time, you’re watching the scene unfold atop an overhead platform. You notice the same helpless tourist on your side that peers over the platform’s edge to see what’s happening. You know that if you pushed the tourist off the edge, he’d land on the tracks so as to stop the train altogether. To push or not to push?

Case #3: Shifting gears a bit, you’re now a surgeon at a hospital performing clinical duty when our fellow tourist meanders in for a routine checkup. Unbeknownst to the tourist, five other railroad workers missing various vital organs are sitting in your office, begging for an organ transplant as they are on the verge of death. Fantastically, the blood types and organ requirements work out such that you could take all five organs from the tourist and save the lives of all five railroad workers. Do you perform the operation on the tourist?

A few qualifications: Despite any of your potentially magical solutions to the dilemma, there are no easy outs—you can be 100% sure that failing to take the life of the tourist will result in the death of the railroad workers. Also, just to isolate the scenario, assume that no legal or social repercussions will ensue. Finally, we are to wear a veil of ignorance (see Rawls) as to who these people are—as you don’t know anything about them, assume they are the average tourist or the average railroad worker. Though, you may choose to hypothesize the fact that the average railroad worker may be more or less valuable than our random clueless tourist.

Stepping back and comparing the three cases with each other, we notice that all of them make you choose between passively allowing five railroad workers to die and actively killing one helpless tourist. Noting no significant difference in the value of a railroad worker’s life to that of a tourist (especially not when we have five railroad workers), the rational choice in this isolated exercise seems to be to save five lives at the cost of one. Yet, our natural inclination tends away from this option as we go from the first to second to third case. How do we explain this phenomenon?


What initially seems to be out of the question is to rely strictly on utilitarian principles—through this lens, all three cases appear more or less straightforward to kill the tourist. While this may be the stance taken by some, it still doesn’t explain why we’re so much more hesitant to operate on an innocent tourist in the final case than to flip the switch in the first scenario (I’m assuming we all would). That’s when categorical thinking in terms of rights and responsibilities can come into play. As a train conductor, you have an obligation to navigate the train in a safe, intelligent manner. On the other hand, as an onlooker on the platform, you have no reason to get involved in the ethics of the train crisis unfolding beneath you.

Truth be told, the “it’s not your place” argument doesn’t make much sense to me. While certainly being paid to conduct the train in the first example is an excellent reason to turn the lever in the first scenario, the fact that nobody asked you to save lives in the second example shouldn’t stop you from being ethical. Helping the world isn’t something that we should always expect someone to ask from us—the call of duty is always upon us, though the onus is on us to acknowledge it. If you choose not to push the tourist off the platform, sure, nobody’s going to blame you per se about not helping out. Yet, I’d argue you’re just as blameworthy as the train conductor who doesn’t turn the lever and takes five lives. The fact of the matter is that when you were consciously thinking of whether to push or not, you did involve yourself in the impending disaster—you became complicit. Choosing to not do something is still an active choice.

As to explain the final case, a valid consequentialist approach I see appeals to social contract theory and the notion of trust. As a society, we trust doctors to look after our best interest. In a world where the surgeon rips out the tourist’s organs to distribute to the greater good, the fabric of mutual respect and dependency is ripped to shreds. While a single isolated instance may do only marginal damage, widespread replication would bring society to its knees—we could trust each other in only the most monitored, remedial ways. All in all, I’d save five at the expense of one for cases one and two, but not three, and I don’t really see the appeal of categorical thinking at least in this example.

Why Do the Right Thing?

keep-calm-and-do-the-right-thing-44Human beings are self-interested. While this may not always be the case, we certainly have our moments. If you ask, say, your co-workers to lend you a thousand dollars, you’d expect them to ask in turn, “What’s in it for us?” I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making decisions that put your concerns over those of others, just that self-interest may clash with concepts like rationality, morality, and virtue. If I ask someone to do the right or reasonable thing, the response may again be this question of what benefits being moral or rational carry.

The way I see it, reason doesn’t have a goal in itself; rather, it’s a means to an end that’ll get you where you want to go, but doesn’t have a direction built into it. Like a rabid dog that has its sight on reaching a destination against all obstacles, the rules of logic and reasoning provide us a way to make sense of the various data accessible to us and harness them to meet an objective. If you’re starting a business or solving a math problem, you can use reason to help you accomplish these things. On the other hand, I can’t tell you to simply be rational if you’re in a state of idleness. So far, we don’t have to worry about the above tension of human selfishness—selfish and selfless individuals alike would employ rationality, if they wished to be efficient.

Extending the metaphor, morality provides the direction of where you ought to go. Imagine an archer with a bow-and-arrow. The archer points the bow where to shoot (morality), and the arrow follows through with speed and decisiveness (rationality). Here, we run into difficulty with egocentric thinking—self-interest exerts undue influence on where you point your bow. With this in mind, I see three primary strategies for how we act: (1) what you do abandons your notion of morality altogether for the sake of pursuing your own devices, (2) self-interest is incorporated as a pillar of your moral system in the form of ethical egoism, or (3) you remain ethical and selfless in your conduct.

Now, we should address this question of why someone would want to choose the virtuous paths of cases (2) or (3)—why shouldn’t someone abandon altogether their sense of morality? Because we have values. We care about things, and we assign a degree of importance to concepts like justice, liberty, equality, love, life, and happiness. There’s no reason you have to give a hoot about any of these things—there’s nothing in it for you. They’re just things most everyone in our society today ends up valuing, whether out of natural inclination, social pressure, or both. These six aforementioned values mold a person’s morality by instilling in them a rudimentary sense of what right and wrong look like.

Finally, I’d like to briefly defend the existence of a purely altruistic act—namely, that the third category of actions may actually exist. It’s true that most people’s conception of morality, including mine, tips the scale in favor of your own interests. Given the choice to kill either your mother or two mothers unbeknownst to you (same age, health, benefit to society, etc.), I doubt anybody would end up adhering to the strictly utilitarian doctrine of greatest good for the greater number—nobody would kill their own mother. Though, even if most people and most actions are conceived out of self-interest, that doesn’t mean they all have to be.

When we weight pros and cons when making a decision, our intellects have some authority as to what considerations are and aren’t made. If I give a dollar to a homeless person, it could be to feel better about myself or it just as well could be out of concern for the other person’s well being. Which is to say that as a conscious, rational decision-making agent, I get to decide what’s on my list of pros and cons. I could have thought originally, “Wow, everyone around me who sees me giving this dollar away would think I’m such a superb human being.” Quickly thereafter, I could see how superficial this reason is and scratch it off my list. Let’s say I work on my list a little bit and reach a point where none of the reasons compelling me to give this dollar away are related to me; if I give the dollar away sticking to this list, I’ve made an altruistic decision.

I remember having this conversation with my brother when he used a small, interesting kink in the argument to try to flip it on its head. “Sure,” he said, “Let’s say you’ve just given this dollar away because you thought it was the right thing to do. But you only do the right thing because you want to.” Crap, now all of morality is for yourself. The workaround I see to this challenge is not wholly satisfying, but in my opinion valid. You can appeal to the definition of morality—remembering that you derived it from your values—and establish that because morality tells you what you ought to do, you will do just that. It’s a statement of fact. I, Mohit Mookim, will do the right thing. I don’t make any attempt to justify or qualify the statement; it’s the cornerstone of my moral system, and it’s just what happens.

While I may raise more questions than I ask, I hope I’ve untangled at least some of the tensions between these behemoth topics of rationality, morality, and self-interest.

Do Atheists Make the Same Mistake?


In previous posts, I have written about epistemology and my thoughts on God. Although, there’s a good deal I haven’t yet touched on. First, a bit of background. A few years ago, I would have conversations with my more religious friends about the existence of God, and I would bluntly make statements like, “I think there’s no way God could exist,” or more simply “There is no God.” Essentially, I was making a claim of belief that—in my observations and learned understanding of the universe—I do not see evidence for the existence of God. What I had failed to distinguish between is claiming that I don’t believe in God and claiming that I believe God doesn’t exist. In order to appropriately claim the latter, I would’ve needed hard evidence that there’s no way God could exist—as much evidence I’d need to show that it does exist. On the other hand, the former, taken in itself, is in many ways a much easier claim to make—almost like a surrender of belief by simply negating any belief at all.

In fewer words, the burden of proof always lies on that who makes a claim of belief. Thus, the conventional argument atheists make to support their belief in no God is inadequate. Just because you don’t see any evidence for God, doesn’t mean you’ve made any case that God does not exist. Instead, the only contention you’ve impacted is that God does exist, and you’ve argued in the negation. The next step I took in my beliefs about God was to try to abstain altogether from making an assertion. When asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” I would respond, “I don’t know.” Not only was this a rather unhelpful, borderline rude answer to the question, but it was also inaccurate. I do know whether I believed, so my response now would be that I do not and could not know whether God exists.

Why can’t I know?

I’m in first grade now, and my friend asks me for help on a multivariable calculus problem. We’re not sure why he’s doing calculus, considering neither of us knows any real math yet, but like a good friend, I feel obliged to indulge him. He’s coming to me with a pre-existing inclination that the answer is seven, and he asks whether I think he’s right. What should I tell him? I have three options: (1) Agree; claim the answer is seven. (2) Disagree; claim the answer is not seven. (3) Surrender; claim that I do not know whether the answer is seven. The obvious choice to most people would be the third option and for good reason. When you don’t know anything a particular subject or assertion, the most justified claim you can make is to say that you do not know. It’s almost too simple; to say otherwise would be getting ahead of yourself—venturing in territories unknown, proven, and unjustifiable.

A parallel argument can be made for God’s existence, because of the way the typical religious conception of God has been defined. While there are discrepancies across traditions and schools of thought, God and all the properties prescribed to him (like gender) exist beyond the physical human realm. Sure, Jesus may be the physical manifestation of God, but the other two prongs of the Holy Trinity and the God described by most religions is like the metaphysical backdrop or substrate of the universe. We’re not dealing with a physical phenomenon, so we can’t trust science for an explanation. We can’t even trust our own senses or observations. The spiritual world transcends all of that, leaving our senses unengaged and at a loss. There’s not an experiment we could perform to acquire any (to use Russell’s vocabulary) sense-data about God. Accordingly, there’s no way to show that this realm or something inside this realm doesn’t exist either, because again, we don’t have access to it.

Seen in this light, I don’t think the oft-cited Dawkinsian example of the spaghetti monster has much to do with belief in God: we have knowledge about how space works, where spaghetti came from, and the laws of physics. Of course we can say the spaghetti monster doesn’t exist! On the other hand, we know nothing about the supernatural world in which resides this mythical God. It’s an explanation agreed on by the majority of the world for reasons beyond me—perhaps out of desire for existential certainty and universal justice, or maybe just plain old tradition and conformity. Still, no matter how much agnosticism may leave up in the air, I embrace it for the sake of epistemic rigor and personal consistency.

Do Emotions Determine Morality?


Today, my Ideas and Questions philosophy club at Horace Mann participated in the Long Island Ethics Bowl at Hofstra University. Two seemingly quotidian anecdotes stick out to me from the competition. The first happened in—where else—the men’s restroom at Hofstra. While I’m washing my hands, two participants I didn’t know from another school walk in talking about how they’re going to dominate the next round. Having a good laugh, the younger one asks the older, “Alright, so what’s our strategy for the next round?” Without hesitation, the older student raves, “Debating ethics is the easiest, because you can argue whatever you want.” I give them a passively confused look and leave the restroom.

The second story comes from a preparatory meeting with the Ethics Bowl team. We were discussing China’s one child policy, and one of our advisors is explaining to us what deontological ethical arguments are. The basic idea proposes that our morals are determined by our duties and obligations to people and the state of affairs—we essentially clump a set of actions into categories that we establish are either ethical or unethical. At some point, I step in and, for strategic debate purposes, ask her how our team could possibly justify a deontological argument. After a slight pause, as if suspicious that I’m planning something, she responds, “Well, all moral arguments have to end somewhere, right?” Right… I think to myself, hardly buying it.

The reason I found these anecdotes significant is because they made me doubt what we conventionally use to back up our ethical arguments. The smug participant I came across in the bathroom left the impression that morals were arbitrary—a relatable impulse. Looking at the way right and wrong are discussed in political debates or really any charged discussion, I seem to always get the impression that each side has sworn allegiance to a certain set of core values and refuses to budge, out of both pride and negligence. At some point, the two sides either (1) realize that one of them was mis/dis/uninformed,  (2) identify their basic difference in values, or most likely (3) leave the conversation with no substantive conclusion and a bad taste in their mouth. I’ve seen this happen enough to grow skeptical of my own allegiances—I can see myself on both sides of the argument. I don’t see how I could distinguish between right and wrong without establishing my own set of allegiances that again don’t seem any more “justified” than those of my friends.

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What I start thinking about is this podcast I listened to a little while ago about Hume’s Emotivism: Mile High Sanity Project. If I were to join my friends in debate (and I almost always do—yay for hypocrisy), I feel like I’m taking these set of allegiances that I determined from pure intuition and holding them up as the absolute standard to adhere to for every single person on this planet. Herein lies the problem of moral relativism that Hume so boldly takes a stance on. He continues this train of thought to argue that ethical statements are meaningless, as they are mere outgrowths of our emotions towards a certain issue. In one characterization, this is described as the “Boo/Hooray Club”: to determine whether a proposition is moral or immoral, everyone who feels averse to it yells “Boo” and those who feel happy “Hooray.” Thus, one cannot have a productive conversation about ethics, while the only possible outcome of these debates are that these emotions—in the form of ethical arguments—are able to win another person over to feel that certain way.

While I can’t say I’ve made much progress on this issue, the one thing I have noted is the huge difference between ethics being arbitrary versus being emotionally determined. If morals were simply arbitrary, then anyone who wishes to express any sort of judgement could do it with utmost sincerity on the one hand and skeptical sarcasm on the other. If morality were arbitrary, I could soundly and incontestably hold up the argument that random killing is right, even if I say so to facetiously spit in the face of morality. On the other hand, very few people would actually feel that randomly killing people is ever the right thing to do. If you do subscribe to Hume’s Emotivism (few do nowadays), you could argue the reason morality so often gets discussed absolutely is because humans tend to emotionally favor similar things. From the knee-jerk empathetic response of smiling at someone happy to more abstract feelings of victory when equality has been reached, it seems to me that humans emotionally respond to the same actions in the same way as would most of society—for reasons both biological or evolutionary and societal. So before you try to sweep into your next political debate claiming to know what the right thing to do is, stop for a second and think about who gave you the authority to understand this impossibly difficult question in ethics and impose your answer on others.

Is Life a Ponzi Scheme?

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I just read a Boston Review article written by Mark Johnston in response to Samuel Scheffler and Niko Kolodny’s Death and the Afterlife. The article begins by outlining the central question that Scheffler and Kolodny address. Our current understanding of physics tells us that humankind’s demise is inevitable. Whether by the sun’s eventual supernova or by the universe’s drifting apart, it’s going to happen. Why, then, doesn’t that conclusion demoralize us? Perhaps this sounds like a silly question, but say we were told that the humankind would cease to exist in just sixty days. Then, the question would seem almost natural. In such a hypothetical, morality would cease to bear relevance, and a disillusioned population would little be able to enjoy everyday pleasantries. Knowledge that humans will continue to exist after our deaths—or as the article calls it, “the onward rush of humanity”—seems to be essential in rendering meaning to our lives.

For example, let’s say I’m forty years old now. (Ugh.) My life goals involve helping solve global warming and giving a better life for my children while also maintaining my personal happiness. I try to get a meaningful job in a political think-tank that promotes and generates potential solutions to deforestation and carbon emissions. (Fun.) It pays well, which I need to effectively provide for my kids and give them a great education. (But of course.) Yet, I care about all of these things now because I have faith that even when I’m dead, society and my offspring especially will continue to reap their benefits. That’s what keeps me going.

At some point, the article poses the question, “Do we need to believe humanity will continue after our deaths?” If I found out that our species would only last another generation, the way I live my life would and should be drastically different. The people I was trying to preserve this planet for no longer exist. My children and their children and the future generations of my family I was attempting to support will hardly be able to benefit from what I tried to give them. On top of that, I’m sure a more impulsive, less justified sense of despair would strip me of the motivation needed to wake up in the morning and go to work or work out or clean my room.


Yet, why not extend this chain of logic a bit further? I could argue in a much stronger claim that the only thing that gives value to my actions is their use for future generations. Johnston provides an example of such reasoning: “unless one has children who flourish, one can’t flourish oneself.” The problem is, as he points out, if we know there is an end in sight for humanity, there must necessarily be a final generation of people who don’t have children. These people will have failed to have children who flourish, so didn’t ever flourish themselves. That also means their parents didn’t flourish, because they didn’t, and so on and so forth. Here’s where the idea of a Ponzi Scheme comes in. If the future is all that matters, nothing will have ever mattered at all.

Johnston has a way out of this unsettling conclusion. He outlines three activities we engage in daily that he considers valuable in themselves: (1) simple joys of being human that come from things like eating, drinking, conversing, hanging out with friends and family, making love, raising children, listening to music, and enjoying nature; (2) pursuing a reasonable, mutually beneficial way of coexisting in the here and now; and (3) being thankful of what the human race has already given us. He optimistically concludes that our lives are meant to be enjoyed while giving thanks every step of the way. Thus far, I agree, but I don’t think Johnston goes just far enough.

If we do accept that human lives can be made valuable in themselves by virtue of joy and gratefulness, then we can establish that more lives and more generations of humanity on this planet are far preferable to fewer ones. And because human lives multiply, saving 10 lives now could mean hundreds of lives that wouldn’t be there 500 years later. On top of that, it becomes necessary for us to teach (and I use this word loosely) future generations to value their own happiness after we create conditions under which this happiness can thrive. Things like existential risk management for the human race—global warming and nuclear proliferation—become of utmost importance to us. The arts, humanities, and philosophy provide these future people a healthy life of the mind, and smoothly running political and socio-economic structures would be indispensable to letting our successors live secure and stable lives.

Johnston leaves us almost on a note of complacency; that the miracles of human existence have positioned us in just the right place to sit back and enjoy all that it has to offer. Instead, because we were given this incredible gift, we should do everything in our power to not only appreciate, but also preserve and extend this gift for as long and as far as we possibly can.

Again, check out the original Boston Review article at:

Winter Reading—Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Schopenhauer

33_winter-forest_934x623Winter break was a much needed vacation; I just finished submitting all my college applications and had some free time on my hands while traveling to India. I first set my sights on my second work by Kakfa, The Trial. From The Metamorphosis, I had experienced the suffocating nature of Kafka’s writing: the main characters remain powerless and clueless for most of both novels as they undergo a life-altering transition they have no control over. Also, descriptions of the air being stuffy or feeling trapped are sprinkled throughout the narrative. I was constantly frustrated by the ineptitude and arrogance of K. in his dealings with his trial. While I don’t want to spoil too much, the incredibly pervasive yet elusive judicial system Kafka establishes in The Trial led me to question whether similarities exist within our systems of blame and punishment.  That being said, the anecdote towards the end the priest tells K. raises more questions than it answers.

Next, I moved on to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Having read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, the “Underground” protagonist who’s filled with contradictions (the depths of both abysses) and who lashes out vainly or “irrationally” came as no surprise to me. Though, I did find interesting the discussion in Part I that more affirmatively sets up a kind of consistent, working belief system; structured like a journal entry, Dostoevsky perhaps steps out of the framework of a novel and into that of a philosophical treatise. But naturally, Dostoevsky provided himself cover from being accused of actually agreeing or endorsing these beliefs right upfront in the first paragraph of the work.

I decided to close with an anthology of Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, which compiles passages from his final great work Parerga and Paralipomena. R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction described the adapted Kantian background of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics—involving an unknowable will that underlies the world as we perceive it. I also learned his incredibly stubbornness throughout his life, dragging on trials for far more than usual and maintaining the exact same daily routine for 27 years of his life with little exception.  Now, as I’m about halfway through his portion of the work, I’m learning of the pessimism that motivated many of the existentialists and how he actually believes in the right to suicide and the annihilation of human will—a concept I don’t really understand.

Retrospectively, I probably should’ve picked some more cheery books for my vacation-winter reading. Sorry for the lapse in posting, and I highly recommended any of these three books if you’ve got some free time on your hands.

A Tale of Two Children

I want to help people; I want to make them happy. The following experience I had with poverty at a wedding in India is one of the reasons why.


The boy noticed the procession of a few sophisticated looking partygoers arriving at the gates of the Marriott Hotel. His gut assured him that this was his big break. In his ragged and torn clothing, he hid his tiny, bony frame behind a few nearby bushes. He waited with neither restlessness nor annoyance, rather with optimistic anticipation.


While waiting for the bride and groom to arrive, my dad handed me some rich pistachio ice cream. After nibbling at it for a couple minutes, I had had enough. I dallied over to the nearest trashcan and threw out the rest of the ice cream.

As I turned away, I caught a glimpse of a tattered boy making his way out of the flower bushes. He looked about twelve, the same age as me. I was disheartened by his appearance, and for a moment, we made eye contact: his cool, austere gaze burned my skin. I compared my condition to his and wondered what I had done to earn such an advantage. The injustice was appalling, and I got rather angry inside—not with anyone specifically, but with everyone.

Still in stride, he fished the carton out of the can, and without hesitation, devoured the ice cream I had thoughtlessly abandoned. He looked elated; I watched in confusion. Something didn’t feel quite right.