Thomson's turnabout on the trolley

Analysis 69 (4):636-643 (2009)
The famous ‘trolley problem’ began as a simple variation on an example given in passing by Philippa Foot , involving a runaway trolley that cannot be stopped but can be steered to a path of lesser harm. By switching from the perspective of the driver to that of a bystander, Judith Jarvis Thomson showed how the case raises difficulties for the normative theory Foot meant to be defending, and Thomson compounded the challenge with further variations that created still more puzzles of broader interest. In recent years, her thought experiments have even been co-opted by psychologists engaged in the empirical study of moral judgment . Yet more than thirty years after launching the trolley problem, Thomson has now strikingly reversed course, retracting the very claim she had originally used to raise puzzles for Foot. I shall argue that this reversal is a mistake, leading to a needlessly counterintuitive, contrarian position about damage-control cases. Instead of overturning her earlier position, her new variations merely uncover a surprising insight about the conditions under which one may permissibly sacrifice another for a good end.1. The central case at issue is what Thomson now calls Bystander's Two Options: you are a bystander who sees a runaway trolley headed toward five innocent people who cannot move off the track; you cannot stop the trolley, but you have access to a switch that will divert it onto a side track where one innocent person is trapped. Is it permissible to throw the switch and divert the trolley toward lesser harm? The common answer, and Thomson's earlier one, is that it is: in cases like this, where there is a public threat and we can act on it so …
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DOI 10.1093/analys/anp091
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References found in this work BETA
Judith Jarvis Thomson (2008). Turning the Trolley. Philosophy and Public Affairs 36 (4):359-374.

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Citations of this work BETA
Ezio Di Nucci (2012). Self-Sacrifice and the Trolley Problem. Philosophical Psychology 26 (5):662-672.

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