There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:
- Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Everything else being equal not pulling the lever would be immoral as saving 5 lives by sacrificing 1 life is the best outcome of this situation. The problem some people have is being the agent that diverts the trolley toward the track that has the one person on it. When you come into the situation a lot people look at it as though the 1 person on the side track is in a neutral state (0) and the 5 people on the main track are already in a negative state (5x-) because they will be hit if the train is left alone. Their emotions would tell them that leaving the train on the current course is a neutral (0) decision because those people are already in a negative state, but diverting it to the 1 person is causing a negative state. Causing a negative would be worse than leaving a neutral. (0 > -)
That would be the case if you were not able to affect the outcome. But the reality is that doing nothing is making a choice, it affects the outcome. So, to start, everybody is in a neutral state (6×0) until after the train passes the switch. You can roughly think of it like the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, both options are possible until the point in time where only one is possible. So leaving it on the track to the 5 people is actually causing 5 negative states (5x-) but moving it to the other track is still only 1 negative (-). When looked at this way it becomes obvious which is the best course of action (- > 5x-)