Evaluation of ethics theories using the six trolley problems


Deontological ethics hold a rigid perception of what is good and indicates that small evil acts do not become good even when they are intended to attain a large good goal. In the deontological tenets good is good and bad is bad despite its intentions or consequences.  On the other hand, from a teleological perspective, the good is good while bad is not necessarily good as it may affect the event in an unlimited manner of growth and development in the country at large. The following section reviews the six variances of the Trolley problem and shows and presents arguments on how to respond to each variation using ethical theories to explain the answer.

The dilemmas

On the first trolley problem, it is assumed that person A will pull the lever to protect his wife and children and therefore make the train head to C where it will kill ten people to save five. It is in order to pull the trigger and make the train head to A where it will only eliminate three people and save twelve people (Tumblr.com, 2015). It would have been better to let the train go straight and only endanger to people but the man holding the second lever has a social contract thorough marriage to protect the wife and children who are held at B. Therefore it is expected that the man at point A will pull the lever and make the train head to C.  The social contract theory comes in to play by showing that the social contract supersedes moral obligations to do good to the greatest number of people (Mill, 2012). When using deontological perspective, all the options would be wrong as they involving harming a person which is evil.

On the second trolley problem, when none of them pulls the trigger, only one of us will die randomly and if my trigger is pulled, the two others will die. From a teleological ethics, all of us should not pull their triggers and let the one person die randomly. This will be of great good to the large number of people as two of us will survive. However, from a utilitarian perspective of the teleological ethics, which indicates that humans seek the good of their own (Mill, 2012). I may be tempted to pull the lever in order to be assured of surviving but that will be unethical. From a deontological point of view, all of us not pulling the lever would the most positive reaction as only one of us will die. Therefore the best answer is that there should be social agreement that none of us will pull my lever.


The third trolley problem entails risking the life of one year old or the lives of 23 people who are ninety years old.  From a teleological point of view which indicates that the greatest good for the large number of people (Famm, 2006). Pulling the trolley towards A would be the most appropriate course of action. This is because only one person will die unlike taking the trolley to point B where over twenty people will die. Despite their old age, the effect that the activity will have on their families is devastating. From a deontological point of view none of the options is appropriate as they will involve causing harm (Singer, 2013). However, from social contract theories, it is in order for the one to protect defenceless young child than the 90 year old people who are dependent on their families. The social consequences of eliminating the twenty 90-year olds is low than the one of eliminating one child who is likely to grow to be economically and socially productive and hence be beneficial to the society. This is in line with the utilitarian perspective which is hedonistic and indicates that everyone should contribute to the common welfare of the society (Famm, 2010). It is therefore in order to pull the lever to lead the trolley to point B and eliminate the 90 year olds as they are socially dependent and do not contribute in any way to the social good due to their age. In many instances they are dependent on the society and create social obligations.

On the fourth trolley problem, the most effective ethical course of action is to pull down the fat man and stop the trolley despite the negative consequences. From a teleological point of view, it is good to do lesser evil for the greater good of the large number of people (Waller, 2005). From a deontological point of view it would be wrong to use the man to save others (Frankena, 2010). However, from a social contract perspective the best course is also not to save the persons as the existing social contract indicates that they are enemies and they may not appreciate the saving act and are likely to pursue my prosecution despite my saving acts. According to Fodor (2010) the social contract between enemies is to destroy each other. Therefore for a social contract perspective, the best course of action is to let the trolley overrun them as the individual consequences of saving them will be negative.

On the fifth trolley problem, where there are pregnant women who can be overrun by the trolley and the other where there are other people who can also be overrun by the trolley. The most ethical source of action is to overrun non pregnant persons as they are lesser compared to the pregnant women when considering that pregnant women have carried two lives (theirs and that of the foetus). According to Evans (2010) from a teleological point of view the greater good to the greatest number of people can only be attained by overriding then on pregnant people and let the pregnant women survive.


On the sixth trolley problem, where there are two levers which are fake and it cannot be easily identified which one is fake, it would be prudent to identify the fake levers before pulling them. Then one can change levers when one knows which lever is working to change the levers. This is because from a deontological perspective, any of the option will still cause harm and there is no mechanism to prevent the harm. However, the considering that one does not know which lever is fake the most important is to check the lever which has effect to change the trolley direction so as not to run over the large number of people. From teleological perspective, one is obliged to do that which whose consequences will bring greatest good for the largest number of people (Frankena, 2010).


In conclusion, the teleological perspective was the most appropriate ethical way of solving the dilemmas as it considered the consequences and the circumstances leading to consequences. Deontological perspectives were fundamentalist and unchanging despite the magnitude of consequences. In the teleological aspect it is the greatest good for the greatest number.   Muirhead (2012) explained teleological perspective as an ethical principle that holds that the end justifies the means. It is the consequences that matter and not the means which were used to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.







Evans, G. (2010) The Varieties of Reference. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Famm, F. (2010) Intricate Ethics Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Famm, F. (2006) Morality, Mortality Vol. II: Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, J. (2010) Psychosemantics, or: Where do truth conditions come from?.

Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Frankena, W. (2010) Ethics: Foundations of Philosophy Series. 4thedn. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Knight, K. (2007) Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre. New York: Polity Press.

Mill, J. (2012) Utilitarianism. 5thedn. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company. Muirhead, J. (2012) Rule and End in Morals. 10thedn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Singer, P. (2013) A Companion to Ethics. New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing.

Waller, B. (2005) Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Longman.

Tumblr.com. (2015) Nuclear Machine That Heats Space: Advanced Trolley Problems. Available at: http://nuclearspaceheater.tumblr.com/post/115002025103/advanced-trolley-problems (Accessed 10 October 2015).


Published by Samuel Ng'ang'a Mwangi

One day I had too much to tell but there was no one to tell the story. I had to write articles, print them and then give them out to anyone who cared to read. Author of "So You Want To Get Into Courtship?" A Guide To Purposeful Christian Courtship. I write and rewrite on my blog www.mwelisa.com.

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