Switching the Track


Imagine you are at the train track switch. Down the main track there are ten kids playing on the track. Down the second unused track there is only one. A train comes, the track is aligned toward the ten kids. Do you switch the track and sacrifice the one?

Most people would answer yes, switch the track.  Not to sound callous, but I’m here to tell you how wrong that is.


Does it occur to you that the ten kids playing on the used track are being irresponsible for doing so, and the one kid playing on the unused track had the forethought and wisdom not to play on a used track. Why should the responsible, fore-thinking child be sacrificed for the stupid, irresponsible ones?

Does it also occur to you that the ten kids playing on the used track may be fully aware that a train may come – after all, they are the ones playing there – and may move? While the kid playing on the unused track may not even consider the possibility that a train may come because its supposed to be an unused track. Therefore, switching tracks guarantees the death of the one while not switching tracks does not guarantee the death of the ten.

Does it also occur to you that the unused track may be unused for a reason, and that switching the train may end up sacrificing the passengers lives as well?

Lets talk probability. What’s the probability that none of the ten kids will see the train coming and warn the other nine? Far lower than that of the one kid not noticing, that is for sure.

Or perhaps all 11 children are just plain stupid. In which case the Darwinian approach to the problem is to purity the gene pool of such retardedness. Same conclusion is reached – its better to let the train go toward the ten kids.

To ease your moral confusion in all this, its improbable that the train would actually plow down all ten kids anyway. Maybe nine, maybe one, maybe none at all by shear luck.  The burden isn’t nearly as great. The burden is in fact more comparable to that of the one child on the other track – except there you must take an active role in the sacrifice.

You are not personally responsible for what bad luck brings. Should all ten be killed, it was nothing more than a judgment call in probabilistic thinking.

Now lets talk about ignorance. You don’t know what the children know and you don’t know what the children don’t know. They may be watching, or not, listening or not, suicidal or not. But you, an outsider who is ignorant of their perceptions and knowledge and intentions, are making a decision, imposing your own will, into the equation.  Your impositions the children are guaranteed to remain ignorant of, themselves.

It seems to me that by switching the track, you are complicating the situation beyond what may very well be what they expect. Don’t get me wrong, its important to get involved in moral controversy and dilemma – but in such of a way as to change the scenario first then ask questions later would be irresponsible of you.

You are not at fault for the fact that parents are not present.  Choosing to do nothing is not inaction, it is still a decision and it still carries moral culpability.  Chosen inaction does not alleviate you of the obligation to take responsibility of your decision.  But had you not been there at all, the same “decision” would have been made.

If you are a believer in the divine then one could argue your being there was no accident.  And that it was your purpose to switch the track.  This is survivors guilt.  Perhaps you did have a purpose. But perhaps that purpose was not to switch the track at all, but to come to the aid of the surviving children.   If you work on the track, or are stationed at the switch, then your being there is no accident – but not for any divinely intervening reasons – if not you then someone else.  Then again, who is to say that it wasn’t the devil who put you there to cause more death and destruction?

What would I do?  I don’t know. That’s why this is such of a popular moral dilemma.

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