The Etymology of “Death By Trolley”: Explaining The Name

Death By Trolley gets its name from The Trolley Problem, a philosophical thought experiment within the domain of morality and ethics. There are multiple formulations of The Trolley Problem. One of the most well-known versions invites the hearer to imagine that a trolley is on its way to running over five people. There is a fork in the trolley track. On the other side of the fork is one person who, if the trolley were to change paths, would be killed, thereby sparing the other 5 people. The quandary that the hearer faces is that they can pull a lever which will cause the trolley to switch course and run over the 1 person, sparing the five. They choose who lives and who dies.


Versions of The Trolley Problem vary by:

  • ¬†Number of potential victims and survivors – e.g., 1 versus several;
  • Identity of potential victims and survivors – e.g.,¬† friend vs stranger vs spouse vs enemy;
  • Degree of activity versus passivity in enacting one’s choice – e.g., pulling a lever versus doing nothing to enact/allow a particular outcome;
  • Psychological distance from which a decision is made – e.g., pressing a button versus shoving someone off a bridge in front of a train.

The Trolley Problem has received extensive consideration not only within philosophy, but also in the cognitive, ethological and social sciences. Philosophers have debated between various utilitarian perspectives (basically, what creates the best overall or average outcome for the most people is the moral thing to do) and deontological perspectives (i.e., morality follows from obedience to core moral precepts; e.g., stealing is wrong; therefore, stealing food for a starving child is wrong), as well as blends there-of. Researchers of human and animal behaviour, meanwhile, have studied what agents actually do, factors influencing their actions, and – where possible – their moral reasoning.

Joshua Greene, a cognitive scientist at Princeton, has studied how people report they would act in response to two versions of The Trolley Problem. The first version is the one described above. In the second, rather than pulling a lever to redirect the train toward the single individual (saving the five), the hearer would have to shove the person off a bridge in front of the trolley. People are much less likely to kill the one to save the five in the latter, much more up-close-and-personal formulation as compared to the more detached former version. Greene once mused that from a purely rational perspective there should be no difference in response:

Either way its five-for-one,

– Death By Trolley


One thought on “The Etymology of “Death By Trolley”: Explaining The Name

  1. Pingback: About Death By Trolley | Death By Trolley

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