The Gambler’s Trolley Dilemma


Take a look at the problem in the image above (courtesy of ‘Trolley problem memes’, Facebook).  Such problems are quite wellI known ethical dilemmas which offer the reader with a moral choice of saving one person’s life at the cost of risking others’ lives. There have been huge ethical debates about the best solution to such a dilemma. Here, I present my own take on the situation.

The motivation for solving such unrealistic problems comes from the fact that they target the guilt-factor of the reader and create a false image that it is in the power of the reader to save everyone, when in fact, by following only the options mentioned in the problem, one cannot ascertain the safety of all victims. It depends on chance. So, let us take full advantage of known facts, logic, physics and the benefit of doubt to circumvent this problem and beat the makers at their own game. Of course, I won’t make over-the-top assumptions /benefits of doubt, but will keep them at par with the level of improbable stuff that the author of this problem assumed while creating it, which sounds fair.

Obvious assumption in favor of the problem: You don’t have enough time to do anything but switch the tracks.

Obvious assumption #2: Physics works …

Not-so-obvious assumption #3: This poorly drawn diagram is not drawn to scale and in reality, the turns will be less curved, longer and more spaced out, being at least wider than the size of the trolley. All arguments against this assumption are denied by the benefit of doubt.

Fact #1: The problem explicitly mentions and shows a “trolley”, also known as a tram, which is known to have a max speed of 60kmph or 16.66 m/s (courtsey of Prof. Google). That’s less than twice of Usain Bolt’s running speed, and can also be achieved by a cyclist. So clearly the trolley is not a high speed vehicle.

Fact #2 on railroad-switching taken verbatim from Wikipedia: “Reversing the points under a moving train will almost always derail the train.”

Observation: If you search for train derailment videos on YouTube, or if you play Train Simulator, you’ll find that slow moving trains get derailed in the direction of the railway fault, fall over and stop after just a few meters. Many a times they don’t even topple over, they just skid for a few meters and come to a halt in an awkward position.

Common-sense logical deduction: No legit railroad will ever lead to this kind of a  ridiculous switching point. Hence we can safely assume that the only realistic scenario is one where the setup was built by an evil psycho who is probably addicted to the Saw movie series. He/she probably kidnapped at most 6 people and wants to play this game with you. The trolley is most likely fully empty or is being driven by the villain (which is good, as you’ll see in a moment). It is reasonable to assume that the villain never considered filling up the trolley full of people because from his POV, what’s the point? Also, it is difficult to kidnap so many people. All arguments against this assumption are denied by the benefit of doubt.

Solution: So all you have to do is pull the lever when the trolley is on the switching point junction. This will cause the trolley to get derailed, fall over somewhere between the tracks and stop before it reaches anybody. Hopefully if it were being driven by the psycho, he/she will get a good beating.

Optional move that makes you look awesome: Flip on your shades and walk away like a boss …



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