🚂 The Trolley Problem + Your Moral Compass


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Train,tracks,leading,into,the,sunset

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How strong is your moral compass in the classroom?

Posed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, this psychological problem reminded me of how we interact with one another in school environments …

About 6 months ago when studying and writing for my new book on memory, I came across the fascinating ethical dilemma, The Trolley Problem.

What would you choose?

There is a runaway train hurtling along the railway tracks.

Ahead, there are 5 people tied up and unable to move on the tracks. The trolley is heading straight for them!

You are standing next to a lever and are some distance between the people and the incoming train. If you pull this lever, the train carriage will switch to a different set of tracks.

You have two (and only two) options:

  1. Do nothing, in which case the train will kill the 5 people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the train onto the opposite track.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

If you chose option two, you would have sent the train towards one person working on the opposite track Something you were unaware of! Now that you are aware of the consequences of your decision, what logical choice would you now make, knowing it’s a matter of 5 lives versus one other?

[Adapated from Wikipedia]

The research suggested that ~90 per cent of participants thought it was ‘okay to let one person die to save five’.

Trolley Problem

Image: Wikipedia

The ‘fat’ man…

There is one other version to the story.

The analogy of a ‘fat man‘ who could stop the train if you pushed them off a bridge, killing them but saving the 5 people tied to the track. The synopsis here is that making a ‘personal’ decision to push the person off the bridge (watch video) is more of a moral dilemma for most…

There is a fantastic 5-minute video that provides a clear visual of the problem.

Of course, this example is not without its criticism, concluding that the morally correct decision maximises the wellbeing for the greatest number of people. This dilemma draws upon the notion of utilitarianism, a theory of morality that advocates decisions that promote happiness or joy and oppose efforts that cause unhappiness or harm in others.

How we interact with one another in school…

So, what scenarios can we take from this ethical dilemma in schools? Here are a few suggestions…

  1. One student disrupts the lesson at the consequence of 29 others wanting to learn
  2. One staff member ‘takes a sicky’ the day after their birthday, imposing cover on their colleagues
  3. Both teachers perform the same at an interview, who gets the job?
  4. A ‘scalpel’ goes missing in the lesson. The students are due to reach their next lesson, do you keep them behind or send them away?
  5. A behaviour policy that excludes the most vulnerable pupils.

There are thousands of dilemma scenarios teachers have to consider on a daily basis. The crux of the ‘fat man’ version of the story is that activating an emotional situation – making it personal, despite the logical response – probes into our moral compass.

Most individuals approve of some actions that cause harm, yet other actions with the same outcome are not considered permissible…


2 thoughts on “🚂 The Trolley Problem + Your Moral Compass

  1. Teaching is all about making decisions. More experienced teachers have more background knowledge of what works in different scenarios. That’s why unprepared entrants into classrooms can flounder. I did 50 years ago until I acquired enough experience to cope. Too many politicians went to private schools where the threat to what parents were paying for was often enough to keep order, at least in this century. There is another interesting moral dilemma around equality versus equity as you make clear in decisions about how to allocate time between pupils in any group. Are the ‘good teachers’ we remember those that took notice of us?

    1. Yes, experience matters. However, looking over the workforce census over many years (as you will know), government do not value more experienced teachers; they know they will be replaced by ‘cheaper’ professionals who do not have the wisdom to make critical decisions. The impact then is that teacher training has to resort to basics for the majority (e.g. behaviour) rather than allowing a school workforce to develop collective wisdom.

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