The act of not acting

So, there’s a personality question (known as the trolley problem) which I came across when I was playing Prey 2017 that goes thusly:

A train is hurtling towards five people who are tied to the tracks. You can save them by flipping a switch but it will send the train towards one person tied to another track. Would you flip the switch? 


In a different scenario, the question is:

A train is hurtling towards five people tied to the tracks. You are standing next to a large person whose body weight can stop the train. You are too light to stop the train. Would you push the large person in front of the train? 


And lastly:

A train is hurtling towards five people tied to the tracks. You can jump in front of the train to stop it. Would you sacrifice yourself in order to save the four people? 

There are no other options given and no other information about the people involved. You don’t get to say, “It depends…” All you, the person deciding the fate of everyone involved, know is that lives are at stake and you can save them… or do nothing.

So the question is. Do you attempt to save the five people? or do you do nothing?

I’ll tell you my answer, and why. In every scenario, I do nothing. Because I know nothing about anyone involved. I know nothing about the five people tied to the tracks, why they are there, why they’re tied to the tracks, who tied them there, or what their crimes were to be tied to the tracks — if indeed they were put there for crimes.  I don’t know what went on before I came onto the scene and saw them there. If I were closer to the five people and had time, I might try to untie them and save them that way, but I won’t pull the switch and kill another person to save the five people because why should one die to save five? I don’t know anything about that other person either! They might be completely innocent — or not, it doesn’t matter either way. Why would I sacrifice that person to save five other complete strangers?  Yeah yeah, The needs of the many outweigh the need of the few, or the one. But that’s not my call to make. Especially in this situation.

lives matter less


I think one of the main problems with the world today is that we tend to see lives as “different” or “better”.  And they’re not. Each human life is equal to every other human life. It’s really that simple.  I know a few people who will take it further and say that every little life in this world, down to the fleas is equal to every other life in this world. I even had a friend who jumped out in the middle of traffic to save a kitten. I jumped out in the middle of traffic to save her, while she saved said kitten… but it all worked out in the end. Anyway, I don’t hold such a philosophy. I’ll smoosh a flea in a heartbeat. Which is why I would not push the large person into the path of the train either. Why should I? Who am I to say this large person must die in order to save the lives of these complete strangers tied to the tracks? This person is just as valuable as they are. I’m not going to sacrifice them just because they are “large”.  By the way, the original question says “large man” so that might make a difference to some people because who would push a woman in front of a train? But let’s make things equal here.  Interestingly, studies show that more people will “pull the switch” in the first scenario than will “push the fat man” in the second scenario. Either way, I’d leave the large person alone and let the train go on its way and deal with the aftermath.

life chess


I haven’t come across the third question in Google, so maybe it’s just in Prey that they use it, but it’s an interesting one. Would you sacrifice yourself to save the four people tied to the tracks? Interestingly, one of the choices in Prey is still “push the fat man” but I think that’s just for giggles. And my answer is still, no. I am under no moral obligation to sacrifice myself to save anyone. I don’t care what the movies say. Yeah, I jumped out into traffic to save my friend while she saved her kitten, but I knew and loved her as a friend. And I would have risked life and limb for my kids when they were under my care, but they’re grown and gone now. So yeah… not stepping in front of a train to save any strangers. Sorry. I’m not a hero. Never claimed to be. And I don’t think it should be expected of me — or anyone for that matter.  That’s another thing that I think is amiss with society today, people expect others to sacrifice themselves for… everything I guess. But no one appears willing to sacrifice anything themselves.  I know that sounds counterintuitive to what I just said but hear me out. I won’t sacrifice myself to save four strangers, but I also do not expect anyone to throw themselves in front of a train for me. Therein lies the difference.


Trolleys are different than trains… same problem.

It’s one thing to be asked what one will do in a hypothetical situation… and I see a whole lot of , I would do this. going around on the internet these days. But you know what, dear reader?  Not many people have actually faced a life or death decision in their lives. Not many people understand what would actually happen if a train hits someone — that there would be death involved, a whole lot of death, and not just for the people tied to the tracks. The train would derail no matter who it hits, and people in the train would be injured and possibly die too. No matter what I — who was unwittingly placed in this position — do, there’s gonna be tragedy. I know this and understand it. It’s easy to make a moral judgement when one has never had their own mortality put in the hands of another, or had that power over someone else. So easy… I’ve seen a lot in my days and I’ve been in both positions. I can say for certainty what I would do, and in most cases, I would totally… do nothing. And I know people judge me for that. But you know what? I don’t care.

methinksIf a runaway train kills five people, and I did nothing, am I as guilty for the deaths of those four people as I would be for the lives of the one if I had changed the tracks or pushed the fat person?  I honestly cannot answer that. You, dear reader, might say yes, but I don’t agree with you. Until it happens — and I hope it never does — I cannot answer.  There are situations where taking action is the just and correct thing to do, and others were taking action will just cause more harm than good.  But I’ll tell you this, I am not going to actively cause a person or persons to die at my hands. Because I don’t feel as though it’s my duty or obligation to save or condemn anyone in this world — even myself. You may agree or disagree, and that’s your prerogative. But that’s how I feel. Just thought I’d share.


4 thoughts on “The act of not acting

  1. purpleslob

    Oh Willow, just reading those questions gave me a near panic attack!!
    I can’t even answer. I know I would do everything in my power for my grandbabies, but a strange baby? Yes, if I could save them, I would. Kill someone on purpose>> NO.

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  2. Embeecee

    As Marilyn said, interesting questions and response. IF one assumes that the people involved in being killed (the tied up folk on the track and the fat person) are anonymous strangers to one, then your response makes perfect sense. BUT. If one does know one of the people (or several of them), as you said yourself, the answer might change. I don’t know what I’d do. I like to think I’d do the thing that meant the least trauma for the least amount of people. And my dark side whispers “Just sacrifice YOURSELF. It’s not suicide if it’s for the greater good…” so there’s that. Thanks for this most interesting set of scenarios.

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    1. Willow Post author

      The question, as posed, infers that the person doesn’t know who is tied to the tracks. But Doug pointed out ot me that because the people are unknown, that doesn’t mean that they are strangers. They are simply unknown (they could be someone we know and love, but we’re unaware of it due to the nature of the question)… and therein lies the dilemma. Because the answer *does* change for people. It means that we value the lives of our loved ones over complete strangers. Right? My answer actually doesn’t change.


  3. Marilyn Armstrong

    Interesting questions, even more interesting answer. I simply don’t know what i would do. Because it really DOES depend on m any things including whether or not I have any special reason to go on living versus the others — assuming I know anything about them. If it was my husband or kid and at my age and in my physical shape? I probably would give it a try. Ditto granddaughter or for that matter, friends or anyone else I love that much. In my case, it isn’t so much heroics. It is recognizing that I’m not going to be here for that long, regardless … but maybe they will be.

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