Runaway train moral dilemma

The moral dilemma is as follows, a train is hurtling down a track, you are the driver, you notice that there are 5 workers on the track, there is no way you can stop, and if you continue forward the 5 workers will certainly die. You notice there is a junction in the track, if you turn onto the other track there is only one person working on that section, so only one person would die, would you turn down the track? Or continue on and kill 5?


This moral dilemma was first proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967, the issue focuses on morality. Can it be right to kill one person to save 5? If you do nothing, then 5 people will die, if you change track, then one person will die. When presented with this question, the vast majority seem to lean towards killing the one person to save the 5, however is this morally acceptable? Can it be right to kill someone, to murder them, in order to bring about good for others?


There are several alternative scenarios which dig deeper into the moral principles at work here, so lets take a look at a more focused example. In this scenario, you are on a bridge with a very fat man, the train track this time is straight, there is no alternative track. There is a train coming down the track, and just as before there are 5 men working on the track, they will certainly be killed if the train hits them, however, if the fat man was to block to train, it would stop the train and the 5 workers would survive. Its important to ignore the unrealistic physics here, this is a moral experiment and it doesn’t really matter if a fat man will or wont stop a train, in this example he will definitely stop the train and the 5 workers will survive. The question then, is would you push the fat man onto the track to save the 5 workers? Again, if you do, you will kill or murder the one man, but save 5. 


In the first example, most people tend to suggest to change track, killing the one to save the five, in the second example, its not as clear cut. People start to question, the physical act of throwing a man onto the track seems to disturb some. However what is the difference in reality? Morally, the two cases are similar, we are knowingly, and willingly sacrificing one person for 5. 


The last example put forward by Judith Jarvis Thomson, will push the scenario to its limit, imagine you are a doctor, there are 5 patients, each one is dying. They all need a new organ to survive, each one needs a different organ. Whilst you are looking for an organ donor, a healthy patient walks into the clinic, he has all 5 organs that are needed. So if that one healthy patient was sacrificed, all five sick patients would be able to have the organs they require and recover. What is the right thing to do here? If we sacrifice the one healthy patient, 5 people will survive. 


In each case it appears that there is the option of either one person dying or 5 people dying, and the choice is one or 5. 


So what is the moral position? Does Islam have any answers to these scenarios?





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One thought on “Runaway train moral dilemma

  1. Bismillahirrahmenirrahiyyim

    As I am not a scholar well versed in Sunnet and Quran I can’t give a definitive answer, but I can try. Imo, a verse of the Qur’an deals somewhat with this issue.

    “We ordained on (the) Children (of) Israel that he who kills a soul other than (to save) a soul or (to rid) corruption in the earth then (it) is as if he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves it then (it) is as if he has saved all mankind” Qur’an 5:32

    I would come to the conclusion, using my own ijtihad, that the verse permits for the taking of one life to save many, should it be seen as a greater moral imperative. Granted, this depends on the situation. But assuming the second half of the qualification is negated, ie it is I’m possible to know who would cause the most corruption, and all you know is that They are people, then the first half of the qualification must be taken as a moral imperative “Unless it is to save another soul.”
    This would be why, for example, the killing of a murderer to save the victim would be islamically permissible. This is also why killing the one person to save five may be permissible.

    So we know that neither answer now is expressly prohibited; which one takes greater moral precedence to the Muslim?

    I think references to Islamic jihad may point to the answer. In multiple instances the Qur’an references the need for jihad to defend Islam as well as human dignity; to fight against corruption and the oppression of the Muslims.

    “Fight them until there is no [more] corruption and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah . But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.” Qur’an 2:193

    We can therefore conclude that the taking of a life to rid corruption is not only permissible but expressly encouraged by the Qur’an. It is thus a moral imperative for the Muslim to take a life in order to save a people from complete oppression/corruption (think Adolf Hitler)

    Now, as Corruption and the preemptive killing of a person to save another person are listed in the same breath of the same verse, we can conclude Quranically that they are closely related and of equal importance. In fact, preemptive killing of a person to save another is listed first, meaning according to islamic scholars (as far as I am aware) that special emphasis is placed on it.

    As they are so similar, the answer to one implies the answer to the other.

    So to sum up, the Qur’an places great moral necessity on the killing of the one to save the five. Thus I think the Islamic answer would be “change the direction of the train” or “push the guy” as horrible and hane haneous a decision that would be to make. Though it would not necessarily be considered haram to fault on that decision, as the Qur’an says basically to the effect of “its better to do so.”

    Thetefore I would say the Islamic answer is that it is of a superior moral decision to save the five, and thus is greatly emphasized, but not immoral to choose the one, as we are only human.

    And Allah knows best.

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