An enduring issue which has occupied ethicists and
philosophers for decades is the so-called trolley problem. The trolley problem
offers a hypothetical scenario in which a trolley containing several people is
on a track headed towards a cliff. If the trolley goes over the cliff the
trolley will plummet to the ground and the passengers will certainly die. A
bystander witnessing this unfolding tragedy has the opportunity to switch the
train onto another track, which is not headed over the cliff, and save the
passengers. However, if the bystander switches the trolley to the alternative
track the trolley will run over an individual on the track and that individual
will certainly die.
The central issues in this scenario revolve around the
utilitarian argument that dictates switching the trolley to kill the fewest
number of people versus the consequentialist argument that if the trolley is
switched to the other track the bystander is responsible for the death of the
individual on that track. The proper choice in this scenario has been argued
for decades and will, undoubtedly, be argued indefinitely into the future. I am
pleased that I do not have to choose the outcome. However, the time has come
that this decision has to be faced directly. The choice in this and many
similar scenarios now needs to be made.
The reason this scenario must be decided now is
straightforward. We are entering the age of autonomously driven vehicles. What,
you may ask, does this have to do with the trolley problem? Just as the famous
trolley confronts this circumstance, autonomously driven cars will encounter
this and many other circumstances that require the vehicle to make decisions.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.