Imagine that an out of control trolley is speeding towards a group of five people. You are standing on a footbridge above, next to a large man. If you push him off the bridge onto the track below, his body will stop the trolley before it hits the five people. He will die, but the five others will be saved. Should you push the man off the bridge?
Before you make your decision, you should know that your popularity could depend on it. According to a new study of more than 2,400 participants, which we carried out with David Pizarro from Cornell University, the way you answer the “trolley problem” can have a big impact on how much people trust you. So let’s have a look at your options.
You might say yes; saving five lives outweighs the harm of killing one person. And you wouldn’t be alone: you’d be making a moral decision in line with “consequentialist” theories of morality. Consequentialists believe that we should aim to maximise the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even if this means causing some harm – for example, by killing one person to save five.
On the other hand, you might say no; killing someone is just wrong, regardless of any positive consequences there might be. Here, you’d be making a moral decision in line with “deontological” moral theories, which focus on moral rules, rights and duties. Maxims such as “thou shalt not kill” and “treat others as you would like to be treated” (otherwise known asthe golden rule) fit into this category.