Teaching The Trolley Problem

This collection of resources includes a slide deck, video, simulation activity, and guided reading to help students understand the nuances of the classic trolley problem and explore some of its practical applications.

Introduction

The Trolley Problem is a classic thought experiment that encourages students to critically think about how they judge decisions as “good” and “bad”. It also acts as an introduction to the philosophical concepts of deontology and utilitarianism. Neither the instructor nor the students need to have a background in philosophy in order to fully understand and engage with the trolley problem. Below are several simple resources for guiding students through this concept. 

The classic trolley problem:

You see a train that’s barrelling down the tracks, unable to stop. Ahead, you see that there are five people tied to the tracks, screaming for help, who will be run over by the train. Your only option is to pull a lever that will change the direction of the train, but on the other track there is one person on the tracks. So, you must decide between doing nothing, which will result in the death of five people, or actively causing the death of one person, by pulling the lever. 

Explanation:

The trolley problem asks you to consider whether it is the consequences of an action or the action itself that makes it good or bad. Utilitarian thinking says that it’s the consequences that matter, and that the goal should be about maximizing the benefit for the most people. Therefore, a utilitarian would say that you should pull the lever, killing one person instead of five. A deontologist, on the other hand, believes that actions themselves can be judged as right or wrong, and therefore would see pulling the lever as immoral because it actively contributes to a person’s death. 

Resources: 

  1. Academy 4SC video: This animated video gives an overview of the trolley problem, explains it’s philosophical grounding and its implications for modern technology. 
  2. Slide Deck to introduce the topic: This presentation gives a brief introduction to the trolley problem. It includes videos showing how a famous AI robot responded when asked about it, as well as how young children reacted when presented with the trolley problem. It also includes discussion questions that ask students to think about what they would do and dive deeper into some modifications of the classic trolley problem. 
  3. Real-world application: Program Your Car task force: This simulation activity asks students to take on the role of self-driving car programers. They must take what they know about the trolley problem into consideration and decide how their car would make life and death decisions. 
  4. Take it a step further: Read Taurek’s “Should the Numbers Count?”: This paper presents another look at the debate of utilitarianism versus deontology and lays out another classic thought experiment. It asks the reader to imagine that they are in control of a life-saving medicine. One person needs the full dose of the medicine in order to survive, while 5 other people need just one fifth of a dose. Doing nothing would cause all 6 people to die so a decision must be made. The author goes through a number of considerations like ownership of the medicine, relationship to the patients, and background, among others. 
    1. This is definitely a more advanced reading, but a great way to engage deeply with this debate. Here’s a guided reading that picks out key points and includes discussion questions throughout. 
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