The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum

The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum

by Thomas Cathcart

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A New York Times–bestselling author explores a classic ethical challenge: “This riveting little book is grounded, relevant, and fun” (Gregory Stock, author of The Book of Questions).

A trolley is careening out of control. Up ahead are five workers, and on a spur to the right stands a lone individual. You, a bystander, happen to be standing next to a switch that could divert the trolley, which would save the five, but sacrifice the one—do you pull it? Or say you’re watching from an overpass. The only way to save the workers is to drop a heavy object in the trolley’s path. And you’re standing next to a really fat man . . .

This ethical conundrum—based on British philosopher Philippa Foot’s 1967 thought experiment—has inspired decades of lively arguments around the world. Now Thomas Cathcart, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, brings his sharp intelligence, quirky humor, and gift for popularizing serious ideas to “the trolley problem.” Framing the issue as a possible crime that is to be tried in the court of public opinion, Cathcart explores philosophy and ethics, intuition and logic. Along the way he makes connections to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, Kant’s limits of reason, St. Thomas Aquinas’s fascinating Principle of Double Effect, and more.

This provocative book explores our most deeply held notions of right and wrong, and asks us to contemplate for ourselves: Would you divert the trolley? Kill one to save five? Would you throw the fat man off the bridge?

“Cathcart’s charming approach in The Trolley Problem is to dramatize the dilemma by presenting . . . a trial in the court of public opinion, complete with arguments from lawyers on both sides as well as a psychologist, a professor, a bishop, listeners to a radio call-in show and so forth.” —The Wall Street Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780761178705
Publisher: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 477,148
File size: 609 KB

About the Author

Thomas Cathcart graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy, studied theology at the University of Chicago, and embarked on a “checkered career” (his words) from college teaching to hospice management until, at the age of 67, he started his writing life by coauthoring Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar with Daniel Klein. Mr. Cathcart and his wife live in New York City.

Read an Excerpt



Trolley "Heroine" Charged with Manslaughter

D.A. Calls Recipient of City's Valor Award "Outlaw," Cites "Dangerous Precedent"


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

(San Francisco) District Attorney Cleveland Cunningham yesterday announced the grand jury indictment of Daphne Jones of Oakland in the trolley death of Chester "Chet" Farley of San Francisco last October. Ms. Jones was honored by the mayor in December for "showing extraordinary quick-wittedness and valor," when she threw a switch and diverted a runaway trolley onto a siding. The trolley would surely have hit and killed five people if it had continued on the main track, but instead it killed only Mr. Farley, who was standing on the siding. Mr. Cunningham stated that the grand jury had correctly come to the conclusion that Ms. Jones "had no right to play God" when she decided that it was better for Mr. Farley to die than the five others.

Mr. Farley's daughter, Sondra Farley, was present at the news conference and said that she is hopeful that the future conviction of Ms. Jones will help the family "reach closure." The Gazette has learned that the family also has a civil suit pending against both San Francisco Muni and Ms. Jones.

Reached for comment, Sally Jo Kariakidis, one of the five whose lives were spared when Ms. Jones threw the switch, said, "I am so grateful that Ms. Jones was there and was able to think so quickly. I certainly sympathize with Mr. Farley's family, but I don't think that Ms. Jones should be blamed for doing what most of us would have done to minimize the number of casualties from the accident. I hope that doesn't sound heartless, particularly since I am one of the five who survived." Ms. Kariakidis has appeared with Ms. Jones at several public events, most recently a December fund-raiser for the Bay Area Straphangers Association, a trolley safety advocacy organization.

Bay Area residents attending the news conference appeared split in their reaction to the news of Ms. Jones's indictment. A smattering of applause was heard when Mr. Cunningham announced the grand jury's decision. But Floyd Carlucci of Sausalito told reporters that he thought Ms. Jones had made the right choice in pulling the switch. "Do the math," he said.

District Attorney Cunningham said that he realized that the decision of the grand jury "would probably not be popular in all quarters," and he commended them for taking a difficult stand. "It would be a dangerous precedent indeed if we allowed one person to make life-or-death decisions that favor some of our citizens over others," he said.

The Gazette has obtained the original police report of the incident. It can be seen on our website,



Incident Report

Filed by Patrolman LeRoy Takahashi


Friday, October 5, 2012

At approximately 4:49 p.m. on October 5, 2012, Patrolwoman Sarah Foster and I received a call from our dispatcher, advising us to proceed to the corner of California Street and Van Ness Avenue, where a trolley had apparently run over a man, causing "grievous injury or death." Patrolwoman Foster and I proceeded to the aforesaid corner, where we observed a city ambulance crew placing the body of a Caucasian male, approximately fifty years of age, into an emergency vehicle. A trolley was parked on the siding, just beyond the site of the alleged accident.

A woman approached us in an agitated state and identified herself as Daphne Jones, 3 Clark Street, Oakland, age twenty-seven. She reported that she had thrown a trolley switch beside the track and diverted the trolley onto the siding where the alleged accident had occurred. We inquired as to why she had acted in this manner, and she indicated that it was in order to save the lives of five other persons who were standing on the main track. We instructed her to remain in our vehicle while we conducted a surveillance of the area and interviewed witnesses.

After speaking with several eyewitnesses, we determined that Ms. Jones's account of the incident was accurate. Upon checking with SFPD HQ, we were informed that no apparent crime had occurred, as Ms. Jones's conduct appeared to meet Exception 3 to Section 192, Manslaughter: "Killing another person when you kill to protect yourself or another from being killed or suffering great bodily injury does not constitute manslaughter, either voluntary or involuntary." We advised Ms. Jones that she might be contacted again by the district attorney's office, but that for now she was free to go. She was still quite agitated, so we drove her to her home and notified our dispatcher at approximately 7:15 p.m.



Jurors' Welcome

Commissioner of Jurors' Office


Monday, April 1, 2013

Good morning, prospective jurors. I'm Margaret Sturdevant-Casey, chief jury officer here in the Court of Public Opinion, and it is my pleasure to welcome you here this morning. I hope everyone has found the coffee machine here to my right and the restrooms just beyond the glass doors.

This morning we'll begin jury selection in the case of The People v. Daphne Jones. Twelve of you will be chosen to sit in the jury box and serve as the jurors of record, but, unlike cases in other courts, all of you will serve as associate jurors, because here in the Court of Public Opinion, everyone's opinion matters. This means that, barring serious illness, you must follow the case on television or online and submit your input to the jury when it begins its deliberations. This is, after all, the Court of Public Opinion, and it is only for obvious practical reasons that we must choose twelve to represent all of you in the deliberations. Those of you who aren't seated still have a responsibility to inform yourselves of the facts and arguments in this case and, if possible, form an opinion.

In addition to this requirement of universal participation, the Court of Public Opinion also enjoys a unique status above and beyond that of any other court in the nation. You probably learned in your high school civics course, as I did in mine, that the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Well, I'm here to tell you this morning that this is not strictly true. The Court of Public Opinion is actually the highest court in the land. How so? First, while the Supreme Court can strike down a law that is presently on the books by finding that it is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court is absolutely unable to create a new law. By contrast, the Court of Public Opinion can and does inspire the creation of new laws nearly every day. That is to say, the laws passed by our representatives in Congress generally reflect a broad public consensus, albeit imperfectly. Second, while the Supreme Court has the sole authority to interpret the Constitution, only the Court of Public Opinion can change the Constitution, as it in fact has done twenty-seven times over the course of the past two hundred twenty–plus years.

If there were no Court of Public Opinion with the authority to change the Constitution, women would not be able to vote today. Laws permitting one person to own another person would in all probability still be in force. And laws governing private behavior in the bedrooms of consenting adults would likely still exist in some states. So I think you can see that your responsibility as jurors on this court — or, if you prefer, citizens in this democracy — is literally awesome.

So, with that, I welcome you to the duty and privilege that come with being a juror in the Court of Public Opinion.



Summation by District Attorney Cleveland Cunningham


Friday, April 19, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, after three weeks of testimony, you have now heard all the evidence in this matter. It is now time for me to summarize the people's case against the defendant, Daphne Jones.

You all know the facts. The defendant was walking down the street when she saw a trolley coming down the track at a high rate of speed, obviously unable to stop. She noticed a switch nearby and deliberately threw that switch, sending the trolley down a siding and into a man, who she knew or should have known would be hit and killed by the trolley. We submit that Ms. Jones is therefore guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Now, the defense team, led by Ms. Baumgarten, would have us believe that mitigating facts in this situation prevent it from rising to the level of manslaughter — or, in fact, any criminal charge. Indeed, they contend that Ms. Jones should be acclaimed as a heroine, because, in killing this one man, she saved the lives of five other people. They cite the nineteenth-century British ethicist Jeremy Bentham, who wrote that the rightness or wrongness of an act depends entirely upon its consequences and that our actions should be guided by the principle of creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This philosophy has been given various labels, including consequentialism, for obvious reasons. It has also been called utilitarianism, meaning that "good" simply means "whatever is most useful in maximizing happiness." We will deal at length here today with the inadequacy of this philosophy as a basis for either legal or ethical decision-making.

JEREMY BENTHAM (1748–1832)

Soon after Bentham was born in London, it became clear to his family that he was a child prodigy. He read a lengthy history of England while still a toddler and began his study of Latin when he was three. At the age of twelve, he entered Queen's College. Upon graduating, he studied law and was admitted to the bar but never practiced. Philosopher that he was, he preferred to dedicate his life to writing about how to reform the British legal system along utilitarian lines: the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

While others were arguing from "natural law" as the basis for maintaining privilege, Bentham took radical social stands on the basis of "utility," or the maximization of happiness in society. He strongly influenced the elimination of debtor prisons in England, the reform of parliamentary representation, and the establishment of a civil service sector accessible to all classes by way of an examination. In opposition to the "natural law" theorists, he also advocated universal suffrage and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

The prosecution does not quarrel with the defense's representation of the facts. We concede that there were, in fact, five other people on the main track. We even concede that the defendant drew the correct conclusion that those five people would have died if she had allowed the trolley to proceed on the main track. We further concede that from a utilitarian or consequentialist perspective, Ms. Jones's behavior was "ethical," even praiseworthy, because it led to the death of only one man.

As you know, no criminal charges have been brought against Ms. Jones in municipal or state court, presumably because no prosecutor in the lower jurisdictions believed he or she could win this case before a jury. The prosecuting attorneys who pondered whether to proceed with this case may themselves have felt that the circumstances are exculpatory. Or they may have wished to bring the case forward but knew that a jury would be swayed by their emotions and sympathize with the defendant, or perhaps with the five who were spared. For whatever reason, charges have not been brought. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the case is being brought here — to the Court of Public Opinion.

The court officer has already instructed you in the unique mission of this court. Let me add that we on the prosecution team are fully aware of the burden of proof that is ours in this case. By this I do not mean the burden that the prosecution normally has: that a defendant is innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That burden applies to prosecutors and juries in lower jurisdictions: municipal, state, and federal criminal courts. The prosecution in the Court of Public Opinion does not carry that burden. We are free to argue in any way we choose, and you are free to decide in any way you choose.

Most jurors in this court would probably stipulate that they are nonetheless bound by a few ethical requirements: for example, that the facts, while we cannot help but interpret them, should not be deliberately altered or disregarded and that we should be led by a chain of reasoning rather than by unbridled emotion or bias. Emotion and bias are probably unavoidable — and emotion may even play a positive role in decision-making — but most jurors seem to agree that conclusions based on emotion and bias must at the very least be consistent with an appeal to reason. In other words, their conclusions must be reasonable.

No, the burden that the prosecution bears in this case is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the ethical demands — that we stick to the facts (as we see them) and that we be reasonable — are a light burden for both prosecutors and jurors. The special burden for the prosecution in this particular case is that "common sense" would seem to be on the side of the defense. Indeed, this is probably the main reason that this case has not been brought in a lower court. My job today will be to convince you that "common sense" in this case is simply nonsense.

First, a word about common sense. Before it was possible to circumnavigate the globe, it was "common sense" that the world was flat. Before the careful observations and complex mathematics of Copernicus, it was "common sense" that the sun moved around the Earth. Before the discovery of the fossil record, it was "common sense" that the world was only a few thousand years old.

Until quite recently, it was "common sense" that men should be given more authority in our society than women. Right now, the "commonsense" view that marriage is between one man and one woman is being supplanted in several states by a very different view.

So, while we, the prosecution, are not naïve about the fact that we bear a heavy burden in arguing against common sense, we are challenged by the great discoveries of the past to prove "common sense" wrong once again.

Our argument this morning will be based on a compelling precedent, a prior case in which a huge majority of the Court of Public Opinion found the defendant guilty of a strikingly similar crime. First, we will lay out for you the facts of this precedent case. Then we will argue that the precedent case is, in all important ways, quite similar to the case before you. It is here that we will mount our attack against "common sense," because the defense will try to convince you that it is "common sense" that there are important differences between the two cases that dictate that you arrive at very different verdicts. I am confident that you will not be bamboozled by this misleading argument and will find Daphne Jones guilty as charged.

The precedent case is that of Dr. Rodney Mapes, a trauma surgeon called to the emergency room in a large teaching hospital in Philadelphia. A terrible multicar collision had just occurred on a nearby interstate highway, and six patients had been rushed to Dr. Mapes's hospital. Triaging the six, Dr. Mapes quickly determined that two patients needed kidney transplants; the third needed a heart transplant; the fourth, a liver transplant; and the fifth, a lung transplant. Mapes was worrying about where he could possibly find donors for these patients when he discovered that the sixth patient, a thirty-five-year-old male, had been sent to the hospital for observation and had no apparent injuries at all. Mapes then had the young man sent to the operating room, removed all of his organs, and transplanted them into the other five patients, thereby saving their lives. At his trial, Dr. Mapes memorably said, "Well, I figured it was better that one patient should die rather than five die." Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will remember that these are almost the identical words that you heard Ms. Jones use to defend her pulling of the switch. They are the words of utilitarians and consequentialists! And, in the Court of Public Opinion, they were found to be diabolical words — yes, words of the devil! The jury of your peers found Dr. Mapes guilty of murder in the first degree.

Interviews with the jurors after the trial uncovered the reasoning that went into their decision. Several jurors asked some variation of the question "Who is Dr. Mapes to play God? What gives him the right to decide who lives and who dies?" Yes, while they recognized that on the surface it might appear that it is better for one to die than for five, they insisted that there is much more to making an ethical decision than calculating what has the happiest consequences for the greatest number. At some point, they said, we have to consider questions of rights. One juror, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, cited the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, the professor said, it is always wrong to treat people merely as means rather than as ends in themselves. The sixth man had been used — solely as a means of saving the others, with no consideration for his right to not have his personhood violated and, indeed, his very life taken.


Excerpted from "The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Thomas Cathcart.
Excerpted by permission of Workman Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Problematic Trolley,
The Newspaper Story,
The Policeman's Statement,
The Jury Officer's Civics Lesson,
The Prosecutor's Thrust,
The Defense Attorney's Parry,
The Professor's Analysis,
The Psychologist's Opinion,
The Bishop's Brief,
The Altruist's Dilemma,
The Faculty's Colloquy,
The Judge's Charge,
The Jury's Decision,
Epilogue: Where Have We Landed?,
Source Notes,

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The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
FLANY More than 1 year ago
I found this analysis of the issues concerning the ethical and moral dilemma involved and its treatment with many moral interpretations by the various so called etical positions very helpful in understandin the problems involved. Easy to follow the presentation, recommended for the general public and scholars alike.