Sunday, January 14, 2007


Here's a question that Professor Laura Hartman, who teaches business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago, often asks her students, according to a recent article in The Chicago Tribune: A train is speeding along the tracks. If it continues on its current route it will hit and kill five people. If the engineer hits a button, however, the train will switch tracks and hit only one person -- who will die as a direct result of the engineer's action.

If you were the engineer, would you continue on your course or hit the button?

Send your thoughts to or post them by clicking on "comments" below. Please include your name, your hometown as well as where you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


M. Clenndenning said...

What are the ethics of teaching business ethics by asking idiotic questions about something which you can't possibly know? If this is a first date conversation starter, fine with me, but ethical choices stem from conscious choices. How can you reasonably discuss what you would do in a situation when you have no way of knowing, unless you're unusually prescient, that five people will die if you continue on your assigned path?
Certainly most people would choose to kill only one person instead of five if there were no door number three, but without the choice of knowing, who would not continue merrily rolling along?

Jeffrey Seglin said...

Dear M.Clenndenning (who are you? where are you from?):

Can you elaborate more on your comment that "ethical choices stem from conscious choices" that you made in your comment?


Anonymous said...

Either way, someone will get killed. The right thing to do is to have as few people as possible to die. He should hit the button.

William Dyson
Fairburn, Georgia

Anonymous said...

Hopefully the train is traveling at a safe speed and is equipped with a loud horn so the individual can be warned to get off the track! In terms of business, if we can save workers from the dreaded lay-off system then we always take the road of least distruction.

M. Clenndenning said...

Dear Jeff,
What I am saying is that an ethical choice isn't a matter of luck - a person cannot make an ethical choice by accident even if it turns out to be the best one in terms of positive result or fewest people harmed. A parallel argument may be made that you can't be brave if you're not afraid, and you can't be good (in the deeper character sense) if you're not tempted to be bad.
What's missing from the example of the train is the element of conscious choice. You can't make the ethical choice if you don't have the information with which to choose - in this case, killing five people instead of one. And if you do have the information, the answer is - or should be - obvious.

P.S. I'm from Virginia

Jeffrey Seglin said...

Chance is not involved here. Professor Hartman tells you that if you do one thing, five people will be killed. If you do another one person will be killed. What she doesn't tell you is who these people are or anything about them. But she does give you a choice in the way she presents the question.

Laura Hartman said...

Since the hypothetical is used only to begin a much deeper discussion, it would be a challenger to respond here without, basically, teaching a term-length course! but, avoiding that, I would say two things (other than thanks, Jeffrey, for posing the Q broadly). First, I would strongly disaggree that one cannot be good if she or he is not tempted to be bad. In fact, I would almost disagree with the alternative. I would suggest that Mohammed Yunus (nobel winner) is good in his acts in bangladesh and cannot imagine he is tempted to do "bad" in terms of taking advantage of the people he helps . . . Second, the train example is used to encourage people to second guess gut instinct. Yes, most people immediately say "hit the button." The conversation that follows involves all of the reasons that maybe we should not. Does not mean that we will not hit it, in the end, but opens our eyes to all of the reasons that maybe our guts are not quite so prepared for the ethical issues we face every day . . .

Anonymous said...

Hmm almost quote our former President, it depends on what if is, the key here being `If it continues on its current route'... do we know that it will continue on its current route-might something else happen to present a third option? Also, I wonder how the relatives of the one slain person would feel about this....
All in all, I think changing tracks would not be the right thing to do-despite the tragedy of it all, the engineer has no right to determine that the one person should die rather than the five.
Dave Hosseini
Sacramento, Ca

Doug, Orange County, CA said...

Which headline reads better: "Engineer Fails to Act; 5 Killed" or "Quick-Thinking Engineer Saves 4"? We are judged by what we fail to do as well as what we do. I disagree with Mr. Hosseini; it is the engineer's job to control the train to the extent possible. The engineer is not there simply to be a passive witness to the course of the train. If the track is an allegory for some predetermined chain of events, why is there a button and another track if not to represent choice?

Doug, Orange County, CA said...

A correction to my comment: The engineer would indeed save the five specific lives on track 1 by choosing track 2; I mistakenly subtracted the decedent on track 2 from the potential casualties of track 1. Second headline should read "Quick-Thinking Engineer Saves 5."

M. Clenndenning said...

At the risk of holding forth, I'd like to address Ms. Hartman who opines that the train question encourages people to second guess gut instinct. If you're at the helm of a speeding train and you can see five people on your track and one person on the track next to it, and it takes only a button pressed to avoid the five and hit the one (assuming none of them are responding to multiple horn soundings) what possible "second guessing" can there be? You're not told that the five are terrorists and the one is Mother Theresa - the only choice given is "do you kill five or one?" So how is that an ethical dilemma? I would like to hear at least one of "all of those reasons" why one shouldn't hit the button.
My statement that you can't be good if you're not tempted to be bad hangs on the verb. Certainly anyone can "do" good, but in terms of moral character, intention counts. It may be "doing good" for me to give a hungry street person money, but suppose I give it to them because they're sticking a gun in my ribs and demanding it? Am I still a good person or just a prudent one? It's the same act.

Anonymous said...

There is one piece of information about the train engineer that is not specifically expressed. Does the engineer know before he takes any action / presses the button that 5 people will die if he doesn’t press it and only 1 if he does?

If one takes the position that the engineer does not know the consequences of “both decision” (push or not to push the button), then by doing nothing in my opinion, the engineer has not incurred any lapse in judgment / ethics.

If one takes the position that he is fully aware of the consequences, then by not taking any actions (NOTE: he selected to take no action) he would have caused an additional 4 deaths by doing nothing.

Another way of expressing this is, “by pressing the button, the engineer SAVED 4 lives”.

Rick Randolph
Fountain Valley, CA

Jeffrey Seglin said...

Dear M. Clenndenning,
In your most recent post you raise one of those "second guesses" yourself. You don't know if the five are terrorists and the one is Mother Teresa. If you did, the question then might be, would it matter to you if you are the engineer of this train? (M. Clenndenning, could you email me directly to let me know who you are and how to contact you for possible followup?)

Anonymous said...

The seems like a no-brainer. While one person will die as a direct result of the engineer's action, five will die as a direct result of his inaction. The implication is that the current route of the train was not of the engineer's choosing. And, I guess to some, that fact somehow relieves the engineer of responsibility. "Hey, it's not my fault, I didn't choose this route." But responsibility occurs when (1) you have knowledge and (2) you can do something about the situation. As the engineer, I would hit the button.

Ron Davis, Huntington Beach, California - Orange County Register.

Ron said...

According to my inbox the email address functions as poorly as the question. Clenndenning is absolutely right about the juvenile nature of the question and the obvious choice. The better question was posed relative the the neighbor that found he owned half his neighbor's land. However, I'm not sure ethical questions are resolved on "Given how they feel."

Ron in Huntington Beach

Anonymous said...

Regarding the ethics question posed by Prof. Hartman of which is more ethical?:to continue on the tracks and kill 5 people or push a button and switch tracks and kill only one? Society has always protected the group by "sacrificing one to save the many" however-the question uses the generalized word "people"- a faceless, generic name given that spares the reader any sense of closeness, emotion or remorse
shown to the victim/victims in making the choice as to who lives or dies.

The real test of the "greater good" is more difficult for the engineer (or reader) to decide is when a face, age and identity are put on the five, and the one.

If at the moment of decision, one sees that the five are elderly people who have already lived a long life; and the one is a young child who still has perhaps 70
plus years of a happy productive life waiting ahead, then is it the "greater good" to sacrifice that one so that five may live a short time longer?

If I were the engineer, my first response would be to hit the button and sacrifice the one to save the five however; if I saw that the five were mainly elderly
citizens and the one was a child or young adult- I would continue on course and sacrifice the five so
that the one young person could continue to live-and I would be able to live with myself having to face the consequences of my ethical decision of what I
considered was the "greater good".

With this being said let it be known that I am 75 years old and am still working teaching study skills in a private school for children-and as well as being
"the engineer"- I might also be one of "the five".

Beverly Canton
Newport Beach, Ca.
Orange County Register

Ron said...

The problem with the question is that it assumes that the engineer is not in a position to evaluate the age and other credentials of those about to depart this world. It should be quite obvious that if he had time to weigh the relative individual merits of each of the lives impacted by his decision, he probably had enough time to stop and avoid the whole catastrophe.

The so-called ethical question is silly because it is unlikely to occur and to the extent that it does is less a question of ethics than a reaction. The situation could occur in car (five people in the cross-walk and one on the sidewalk) requiring an immediate decision and reaction. But, is that kind of reaction really and ethical question. And, to the extent that it is, it seems rather obvious that one should die as opposed to five, there being little time to inspect the birth certificates of the potential victims and the resumes to determine who should live and who should die.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those excruciatingly silly hypotheticals beloved by some academics, who can sit around stroking their goatees, puffing their pipes, and smugly marvelling at their own intellectualism. Hogwash! In the real world--not the make believe world of academics with their heads in the bozone--the captain of a ship ( and in this case, the engineer of a train is the captain of his ship) is first and foremost responsible for the safety of his passengers, his cargo, and his ship. In this case, his only option is to sound the whistle and climb on the brakes. There is no magic button. A more realistic scenario might be a driver at high speed rounding a curve or topping a hill, and finding a gaggle of people standing on the road directly in front. His option is to plow straight ahead, brakes screaming and smoking, or take to the ditch possibly rolling the car and killing himself in the process. If you want to put 5 people on the road, and one person in the ditch, fine. Have fun.
Bill Law

William Jacobson said...

As a general rule, the common person is not liable for his failure to prevent a death that he did not create the peril for. Under this theory the engineer would be far more liable for pushing the button and causing one death rather than failing to act and causing five. However, the engineer, in this case, is not a common person. He has a special relationship, that of the engineer of a train, which gives rise to special duty of care to his passengers, and those surrounding the tracks, to operate the train safely. He breaches this duty of care whether he hits the five pedestrians through his inaction or the one pedestrian through his action.
The engineer has a partial or complete defense available to him of necessity. Necessity requires that the engineer show that his action of pushing the button and killing one person was necessary to prevent a greater harm, that of killing five people. This was the case here. The engineer is wholly justified in pushing the button and causing one death in order to avoid five deaths.
Keep the hypotheticals a'comin Jeffrey.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the quandary "do you save your wife or your child when the boat overturns?" (or something like that). I think the engineer's dilemma is a contrived question, since it is unlikely that the engineer would know in advance that the train would kill five people by "staying the course" or one person if he pushed the button. But even assuming that's possible, I must be missing something here. It seems obvious that the loss of one person is far "less worse" than the loss of five people. The question could be made more complicated by identifying the "worth" of the potential victims (the one a Nobel Peace prize winner, say [although he/she would probably have the smarts not to stand on railroad tracks] and the five being armed and vicious escaped convicts [not to say that they aren't smart too, of course - just got on the wrong track {yuck, yuck}]).

Anyway, there are so many "real life" ethics questions, I would recommend sticking with them.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, N.C.