The Kobayashi Maru, the trolley problem, and philosophical supervillains

Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.

—Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons

If you want to have any kind of sanity at all, sooner or later you have to stop looking for an ethical system. That’s not to say you must forgo ethics entirely—that would be a different kind of madness—but a systematic ethic that can be mindlessly applied like a mathematical formula to yield the moral answer to a dilemma is too elusive a goal for the average person to pursue. Even if such a thing is possible, it could never be applied in practice because everyone would have to derive it individually. No one but professional ethicists has time for such a thing—there are bolts to be turned, aircraft to be designed, symphonies to be performed.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I will probably never have a moral formula. I am satisfied that murder is wrong and am neither able nor willing to derive that fact from some ultimate moral principle. In grey areas, I am susceptible to arguments, but these arguments must ultimately inform the exercise of my moral judgment. I cannot escape exercising this judgment, and it’s debatable whether such a thing would be desirable.

Needless to say, this makes intro philosophy courses very unpleasant.

Sooner or later, every intro philosophy class touches on the trolley problem. Basically, it goes like this:

  • A trolley is headed at speed toward an oblivious crowd.
  • You are too far away to warn the crowd—all you can do in time is pull a nearby switch that will divert the trolley to another track.
  • However, there is a single person out for a walk on the other tracks, also oblivious to the trolley.

You can (1) do nothing and allow the trolley to kill a crowd of people, or (2) divert the trolley and save the crowd, but in the process you will kill one person who would not otherwise have died. Different ethical theories emphasize different parts of the scenario—the number of deaths in each outcome, the element of choice in pulling the switch, the fact that the lone person is not in danger unless he is deliberately put in danger—and there are several variations that attempt to cast light on different aspects of morality.

What philosophy professors find frustrating about introducing students to the trolley problem is that, almost to a man and woman, they try to wriggle their way out of it. I think the professors see it as some kind of intellectual turpitude, an attempt to escape confronting the hard questions. After all, when you spend a long time doing anything professionally, certain blindingly obvious considerations are likely to become obscured.


In the Star Trek universe, Starfleet cadets are forced to face the Kobayashi Maru. This is an unwinnable simulation designed to acquaint the cadets with dilemmas in which there is no easy answer—in which following protocol leads to a horrible result, but deviating from it leads to an even worse one, and you have no choice but to watch your comrades die horribly. This is part of their final exams: facing the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and sometimes you have to let people die for the greater good.

However, almost every time the Kobayashi Maru is invoked, the context is some clever cadet trying to find a way out of it. Captain Kirk, famously, won the scenario by cheating and reprogramming it so that it was winnable. At least one other cadet attempted to find a solution within the scenario that would have worked, but was so complicated that it crashed the computers.

Likewise, in A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More avoids giving his assent to (what he perceives as) the king’s illegal marriage. His argument is that legally speaking, silence implies consent, so if he refuses to make any statement on the matter he cannot be legally regarded as opposing the marriage (meanwhile, his actual opinion is obvious to anyone watching, which allows him to make a political statement without putting himself at legal risk).

The king tries to force More’s hand by ordering everyone in the country to sign an oath. A character-defining moment for Sir Thomas is when he orders his wife and daughter to sign the oath and tells them that, if by some technicality he is able to, he will sign on as well.

The message is obvious: when confronted with an impossible scenario, the right thing to do is not to accept it with dignity, but to fight back at any cost. Our natural business lies in escaping.


If it was only a few isolated shitheads who attempt to evade the obvious thrust of the trolley problem, then the intellectual turpitude theory might very well be correct. But the tendency is nearly universal, which suggests that the human mind has an instinctive revulsion to being forced into these scenarios. We feel we are being jerked around, and it’s not entirely clear that we’re wrong.

What is the ultimate point of the trolley problem? It’s meant to give us a contrived scenario that illuminates our way of thinking about morality. In theory, there is nothing else in the situation: just you, a horrible accident of mysterious origin, and a choice. It’s practically algebraic: we isolate variables, plug them into the grand moral equation, and solve for X.

The thought is, presumably, that there is a coherent moral function somewhere in our heads, and the trolley problem is meant to reverse-engineer part of it. But I hold that there is no such function, so attempting to capture its output will lead to very strange results—one of them being the aforementioned turpitude. What we actually attempt to do when we are asked to be the decision maker in a trolley problem is imagine the scenario in as vivid detail as we can, asking the scenario’s creator for clarification when we notice an ethically salient ambiguity (for example, why can’t the people get out of the way? Are they tied to the tracks? Who tied them there?).

If the creator of the scenario refuses to answer, then we have reached an impasse and can learn nothing from the thought experiment. If the creator instead answers the questions, we inevitably end up with a situation so incredibly specific that it could not arise in real life. We start using the same bit of mental machinery we use to solve word problems in math, not our moral sensibility, which makes the experiment useless.


I am skeptical of the value of thought experiments in general because they often ask us to think of what we would do in a situation that we have never and could never face, and then treat our intuitions about those situations as if they’re worth something. But there is something particularly offensive about the trolley problem and all the analogous ethical thought experiments.

When people are put into desperate circumstances of the kind that are not faced more than once or twice over a lifetime, we generally suspend or at least relax moral judgment. Is it immoral to resort to cannibalism when adrift in a lifeboat? Who can honestly say? In a real-life trolley problem we would not, I think, make any strong judgment of the person operating the lever so long as it seemed they were acting in more or less good faith.

However, the more elaborate and highly specified variants of the scenario could not arise from random chance. They would have to be intelligently set up, which implies the presence of a supervillain. We may not have any hard feelings toward the lever operator, but the same cannot be said of the sick bastard who set the whole thing in motion. And here’s the rub: in the philosophy classroom, that sick bastard is the professor. The Joker forces Batman to choose between his beloved Rachel and the great crimefighter Harvey Dent—no small part of his depravity lies not in his willingness to kill, but his willingness to force someone else to kill just so he can make a point.

I suspect that this is why we instinctively have a strong negative reaction to these scenarios: we feel that an act of violence is being committed, first against the hypothetical people in the thought experiment, and secondarily against us. We are made to face that awful choice in all of its horror or, more likely, to come up with some clever way to rationalize the scenario. At best the standard trolley problem gauntlet that every first-year philosophy student must run is emotionally cruel. At worst, it trains us to think of ethics as a game or math problem and not a matter of life or death. It does not teach us, but it can torment us. And even worse, it can pervert us.


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