The Instigator
Pro (for)
14 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
21 Points

1000 character debate: Trolley Problem

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Post Voting Period
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after 6 votes the winner is...
Voting Style: Open with Elo Restrictions Point System: Select Winner
Started: 3/4/2015 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 7 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 8,157 times Debate No: 71085
Debate Rounds (5)
Comments (108)
Votes (6)




Resolution: If a trolley is headed towards five people tied to a track and you are near a switch and can switch the trolley onto a different track where one person is tied to the track, you ought not switch.

It is assumed that the people the trolley hits will definitely die. Practical considerations will not figure into this.

Nor will Kritiks. For instance arguing that 'ought' is entirely subjective, thus this resolution has no right or wrong answer, let the 5 people die, reverse the train, and run the other guy over too, then jump and kill yourself for good measure.

In short, the problem as it stands is debateable and has plenty of ground on both sides. DO NOT accept this debate if you don't intend to debate the problem in the spirit in which it was posed.

Standard site rules apply.

First round for acceptance only. No new arguments by Con in the last round.

Character limit is 1000.
Time Limit is 12 hours.

My position (Pro) is to defend the resolution i.e. do nothing and let five people die.


Debate Round No. 1


Consider an example that is morally identical: The track after the switch loops back onto the original track such that the one man will be stopping the trolley and his death will be saving the lives of the five. Is this moral?

Consider another analogy: An innocent man is on trial but a mob is calling for the death penalty. If the judge doesn't sentence him to death, the mob is guaranteed to kill hundreds of people. The judge is aware of his innocence beyond doubt. Can the judge morally sentence this man to death.

My answer in both cases is no. These analogies show that it is immoral to use human life as a means to an end. Kant argues "a rational being cannot rationally consent to being used merely as a means to an end, so they must always be treated as an end." Can we live in a society where your life may at moment be sacrificed to save another life, or even hundreds or thousands? While this has short-term benefits, such a society impedes on our sense of liberty in the long term.


F-16's original hypo involves two moral principles: (1) minimizing the loss of life, and (2) not violating a person"s right to life (i.e. not intentionally killing). The problem is finding the correct balance.

The weight we should give (1) or (2) depends on the specific facts in each case. For example, F-16's judge hypo. There, sentencing an innocent to death also undermines the rule of law. That fact changes the analysis: (2) takes on greater weight than (1).

But imagine the consequence of a "not guilty" is a nuclear holocaust that wipes out humanity. More loss is at stake than in F-16"s example, so (1) takes on greater value. These distinctions highlight the importance of weighing each case on its own terms. Overgeneralizing any moral principle leads to bad outcomes.

Also, F-16's means/ends argument cuts both ways: five lives as a means to save one. F-16's original hypo is abstract enough to weigh (1) higher than (2). Saving five at the cost of one is at least morally permissible.
Debate Round No. 2


Con must defend a consistent moral theory to ensure fairness. The lack of one enables him to affirm or negate anything he chooses. For instance, a case-by-case analysis may say that in some cases, killing is permissible and Con could simply expand this to any argument.

Alternatively, if Con advocates that morality be decided on a case-by-case basis, he must show why in THIS case, it is preferable to kill the one to save five which he hasn't done.

Con argued that an abstract moral system would exist under which it is permissible to pull the switch. This is a truism. If it was impossible for there to be a moral system where Con could negate, we wouldn't be having this debate at all.

Con's nuclear analogy fails because a nuclear holocaust is inclusive. The innocent man would die either way. If the nuclear holocaust leaves the innocent man alive to live a natural life, the judge is unjustified in sentencing him. Con drops my loop analogy and doesn't show why using humans as a means is good.


A consistent moral theory can require different acts in different circumstances. Delicate distinctions matter. There’s no reason a case-by-case approach is inherently inconsistent. F-16's analogies are irrelevant because they are different cases (and thus different moral principles might apply).

F-16 says I haven’t shown why it’s “preferable” to save the five. I don’t need to show that. I only need show that it’s permissible to save the five.

Sacrificing one to save five is permissible because it leads to a better result (only one dead instead of five). The weight given to (1) is at least equal to (2), because the result of following (1) is better than the result of following (2).

F-16 claims killing one to save the rest of humanity is unjustified. I disagree. The loss of life there outweighs the violation of a single person's right.

I never said using humans as a means is good. But I think using one person as a means is better than using five. F-16 hasn't shown why that's not the case.
Debate Round No. 3


Why is one person dying a better result than five people dying? To whom is it a better result? Would it be a "better result" if that one person is a family member or significant other?

Con simply states that an arbitrary result is "better" without justifying why. Con appeals to a surface-level argument that five lives are better than one but this entire debate is about whether or not this is true. Con has merely asserted his position in the debate.

Prefer my argument that life cannot be quantified, and the loop analogy and Kant evidence: it is immoral to use humans as a means to an end. Con does not respond to this. It outweighs Con's unsupported assertion that life can be quantified and that five lives are better than one.

I have never advocated using five people as a means to save one. The scenario is asymetric. Inaction will lead to the five dying. You can actively choose to save them by diverting the trolley, in effect killing one.


The Kant quote is an appeal to authority. The loop analogy has no flesh. I don't see the relevance of either. This debate also isn’t about killing a family member to save five random people. As I said before, fine factual distinctions matter.

F-16 says life is not quantifiable. But consider: If you had a choice to save five lives, save one life, or save none, the best choice is saving the five.

Consider another analogy: the trolley is sent maliciously with intent to kill. Whether you save the five, or let them die, rights are being violated. Here, saving the five is better.

These analogies show that saving five lives is better than saving one life.

For our problem, inaction causes five to die. Action causes one to die. Either way, a decision must be made. That decision has quantifiable results: five die or one dies.

F-16 says you can't quanity life, so you shouldn't choose between five or one. That's incorrect. The result of five dying is worse objectively than the result of one dying.
Debate Round No. 4


Con continues to assert that saving five is better but WHY is saving five better? He posts as if there is some implied reasoning for this. He cannot win this debate because this entire debate is about whether five lives are better than one and WHICH choice is the better one. Con claims that it just is and appeals to the judges to see it. He presents no framework or reasoning AT ALL for why this is true. He simply says "objectively, it is worse."

I cited Kant to show the Kantian moral framework which I defended. Not an appeal to authority. My loop example makes clear that a life is being USED to save five. Con does not contest my analogy (he can't do this in the final round) so judges should take it as is. I then showed that using human lives as a means is immoral because they cannot rationally consent to it - Con drops it.

Malicious trolley, irrelevant. Inaction does not use five lives to save one because the five lives are not being used to save one. They by default would be killed.


The resolution is phrased so that I only need to show that saving five is PERMISSIBLE (i.e. not worse than saving one). That means I only need show the choices are at least equal.

F-16 must show saving one is better than saving five.
F-16 hasn't met that burden. Even if using lives as a means is immoral, using five is at least equal to using one (because lives are being used either way). F-16 hasn't argued otherwise.

F-16 says inaction doesn’t use the five because “five lives are not being used to save one.” That’s circular reasoning. F-16 hasn’t actually explained why the five aren't used. Inaction is a decision, and that decision implicates the five, which causes them to be used.

F-16 drops my example of a choice between saving five, saving one, or saving none. It shows saving five is better because it minimizes the loss of life. Minimizing the loss of life is a moral principle. F-16 never challenged that principle. That principle dictates that saving five is better than saving one.

Debate Round No. 5
108 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by FourTrouble 7 years ago
Thanks, F-16. Same to you. I think I'm only good in short debates like this. For what it's worth, I think you're an overall better debater than me, and if you had more characters, you probably would have kicked my a$$ on this.

Also: why doesn't this site allow profanities? WTF.
Posted by F-16_Fighting_Falcon 7 years ago
Good debating FT.
Posted by Bennett91 7 years ago
What if it's 1Hitler and 5 Hotlers?
Posted by AngelofDeath 7 years ago
what if it's one human and 5 zombies?
Posted by Mikal 7 years ago
what if there is one girl and 5 fetuses
Posted by FourTrouble 7 years ago
I don't think that changes anything.
Posted by Wylted 7 years ago
What if the 5 guys are black and the 1 guy is white? The scenario completely changes at that point, huh?
Posted by ButterCatX 7 years ago
Pro stated the question wrong as it should be about you changing the track to kill one or not doing anything and letting five die. That situation would short me out as I am a robot and must follow the three laws.
Posted by Enji 7 years ago
I just want to say I think 1000-character debates on topics like this are a really cool idea and I hope you make more of them in the future.
Posted by F-16_Fighting_Falcon 7 years ago
The ought in the resolution implies that it is a debate on which action is more moral. And "whether or not you should pull the trigger" is determined by morality.

There is a difference between killing one and doing nothing and letting five die. It doesn't mean that someone is a psychopath. It means they value people as ends and not means.

What if you were that one person? Would you be okay with the level being switched to kill you? Action and inaction are not analogous. There is a whole branch of philosophy that deals with it. It is worse to actively commit an injustice.
6 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 6 records.
Vote Placed by Bennett91 7 years ago
Who won the debate:-Vote Checkmark
Reasons for voting decision: His utilitarian argument that 5 lives is more important than 1 was not well challenged. Pro tried to box Con in by saying he must have a consistent moral theory, but circumstances do matter, and given that human lives are on balance equal to say one matters more than many makes no sense.
Vote Placed by wrichcirw 7 years ago
Who won the debate:--
Reasons for voting decision: I don't vote. As it is, I was convinced by CON's argument: "F-16's means/ends argument cuts both ways: five lives as a means to save one...Even if using lives as a means is immoral, using five is at least equal to using one (because lives are being used either way). F-16 hasn't argued otherwise." This negates PRO's moral justification, and IMHO PRO didn't sufficiently refute the assertion. Furthermore, PRO's argument in the last round, that "Con continues to assert that saving five is better but WHY is saving five better?" looks rather close to a rules violation, as it looks like what he prohibited when he prohibited "kritiks".
Vote Placed by Enji 7 years ago
Who won the debate:Vote Checkmark-
Reasons for voting decision: With his initial analogies, I think Pro sufficiently establishes that saving lives alone does not make an action morally justifiable. I liked how he tied in Kant; an individual sacrificing another without their consent as a means to an end is not moral. I didn't find Con's weighted argument convincing. How should you weight the principle of "not violating a person's right to life"- you either follow the principle or you don't. Con needed to go more into depth: when is the value of lives saved sufficient to justify violating a person's right to life. Con's most interesting criticism comes late in the debate: is the value of lives saved symmetrical because the moral decision is between action and inaction, or is the situation asymmetrical because the 5 would have died regardless (even if there were no one to make the decision) so the decision is whether to actively sacrifice a life to save other lives. Unfortunately, Con's argument is too little - too late; vote Pro.
Vote Placed by bluesteel 7 years ago
Who won the debate:-Vote Checkmark
Reasons for voting decision:
Vote Placed by Raisor 7 years ago
Who won the debate:-Vote Checkmark
Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments
Vote Placed by Ragnar 7 years ago
Who won the debate:Vote Checkmark-
Reasons for voting decision: A fine job for the small character limit, however I have to grade things as if there wasn't one. The Kant bit was an appeal to authority, however no reason why it was an invalid one was offered. There are many moral frameworks which would call for killing the one, however none were offered (pro even tried to guide con onto simple utilitarianism... but con refused to show why four extra people being alive was better). However in simple terms, R1 the rule was placed against "arguing that 'ought' is entirely subjective, thus this resolution has no right or wrong answer." Con multiple times insisted he is only arguing that it's permissible to switch the tracks; which is precisely violating that rule...

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