What if you could save five lives in a way that results in the death of a single person? If the overall consequences were the same, would it matter if you were intentionally harming that person or not?


Ethical dilemmas often challenge our moral reasoning and force us to make difficult decisions. The “trolley problem,” as introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot, presents a compelling scenario in which utilitarian principles can be applied to weigh the consequences of actions. This discussion paper delves into the ethical quandary posed by the trolley problem, examining how a utilitarian perspective, particularly influenced by John Stuart Mill’s arguments, would address the scenarios. Additionally, the paper reflects on personal agreement or disagreement with utilitarianism, explores variations in response to different scenarios, and critiques potential objections, limitations, or flaws within the utilitarian approach. Lastly, the paper encourages a peer discussion to dissect diverse viewpoints and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism.

Utilitarian Perspective on the Trolley Problem Scenarios

In the traditional trolley problem scenario, a utilitarian would argue that pulling the lever to divert the train onto the sidetrack, sacrificing one individual to save five lives, is morally justifiable. This aligns with utilitarianism’s core principle of maximizing overall happiness or utility. John Stuart Mill’s consequentialist approach, as elucidated in Chapter 3 of the textbook, underscores the importance of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. By redirecting the train, the utilitarian aims to minimize net suffering and maximize well-being (Mill, 1863).

In the alternate scenario involving the large man on the bridge, a utilitarian analysis might endorse the act of pushing him over to halt the train and save five lives. This perspective hinges on the utilitarian calculus that evaluates the aggregate happiness and suffering caused by different outcomes. Sacrificing one life to preserve five, although morally troubling, aligns with the utilitarian pursuit of the most favorable consequences for the larger group.

Personal Reflection on Utilitarianism

Agreement with utilitarian principles varies among individuals. Some may find themselves aligned with the utilitarian perspective in one scenario but not the other. Personally, while I find the utilitarian reasoning persuasive in the lever-pulling situation, I struggle with the idea of intentionally causing harm in the scenario involving the large man. This discrepancy in alignment highlights the complex interplay of emotions, intuition, and rational analysis in ethical decision-making.

Objections, Limitations, and Flaws in Utilitarianism

Critics of utilitarianism point to various objections and limitations. One significant concern is the potential for disregarding individual rights and justice in the pursuit of overall utility. The trolley problem showcases this tension – the utilitarian approach might lead to morally troubling acts that violate an individual’s rights for the perceived greater good. Additionally, the inherent challenge of accurately measuring and comparing different types of happiness or suffering raises doubts about the feasibility of utilitarian calculations.

Defending Utilitarian Views

For those who find themselves agreeing with the utilitarian perspective in both scenarios, a robust defense could involve emphasizing the pragmatic nature of utilitarianism. By focusing on the empirical consequences of actions and the overall well-being of society, defenders can argue that utilitarianism offers a practical framework for making ethically informed decisions. Engaging in open dialogue with those who hold differing viewpoints can further refine and strengthen the defense of utilitarianism.

Peer Discussion: Exploring Diverse Viewpoints on Utilitarianism

The trolley problem’s ethical conundrum consistently elicits a wide range of responses, reflecting the complexity of ethical decision-making and the diversity of moral perspectives. Engaging in discussions with peers who hold varying viewpoints provides a valuable opportunity to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of ethical dilemmas and the principles guiding our choices.

When peers’ answers differ from one’s own, it prompts an exploration of the underlying reasoning and moral intuitions. These discussions can begin by acknowledging the divergent perspectives and seeking to understand the values that inform each viewpoint. For instance, one peer might emphasize individual rights and justice, while another might prioritize the overall welfare of the majority. These conversations offer a chance to delve into the foundational beliefs that shape our ethical frameworks (Mill, 1863).

By engaging with peers who disagree, we confront the limitations and potential blind spots of utilitarianism. The critique that utilitarianism might disregard individual rights in favor of collective well-being becomes particularly relevant in this context. When peers express concerns about the perceived callousness of sacrificing an individual to save a larger group, it highlights the challenge utilitarianism faces in balancing the greater good with ethical considerations regarding individual autonomy and dignity (Foot, 2002).

Furthermore, diverse perspectives encourage us to question the practicality of applying utilitarian principles to real-life situations. Engaging in dialogue about the feasibility of quantifying happiness and suffering, especially across different contexts, reveals the intricacies of utilitarian calculations. This complexity becomes evident when peers express doubts about the reliability of utilitarianism’s utilitarian calculus in scenarios with unforeseen consequences (Thames, 2018).

Peer discussions also offer an opportunity to find common ground and areas of agreement. While peers might hold varying viewpoints on specific scenarios, they might converge on broader principles that inform ethical decision-making. For example, peers might agree on the importance of considering the well-being of all individuals involved, while differing on the prioritization of the greater good. These areas of convergence highlight the potential for nuanced ethical analyses that draw from multiple ethical frameworks (Foot, 2002).

Ultimately, peer discussions provide a space to cultivate critical thinking skills and empathy. Engaging with differing perspectives fosters a more holistic understanding of ethical dilemmas and ethical theories. The act of articulating and defending one’s viewpoint in conversation sharpens one’s ability to express complex ideas and refine moral reasoning. It also nurtures empathy by encouraging individuals to step into the shoes of others and grasp the moral intuitions driving their decisions (Mill, 1863).

Peer discussions surrounding the trolley problem and utilitarianism serve as a microcosm of the broader ethical discourse. These conversations illuminate the nuances of ethical decision-making and the challenges posed by utilitarianism. By embracing diversity of thought, participants gain insight into the strengths and limitations of utilitarianism, while refining their own moral frameworks. These discussions foster critical thinking, empathy, and a deeper appreciation for the complex interplay of values that guide our ethical choices (Thames, 2018).


The trolley problem serves as a powerful thought experiment that tests the principles of utilitarianism against challenging moral dilemmas. Through a utilitarian lens influenced by John Stuart Mill’s consequentialist arguments, this discussion paper has examined the ethical implications of the scenarios presented. Personal reflection, consideration of objections, and peer discussions further illuminate the complexities of utilitarian reasoning. Ultimately, the trolley problem underscores the intricate nature of ethical decision-making and the ongoing quest for a comprehensive and defensible moral framework.


Foot, P. (2002). “Going Deeper: The Trolley Problem.” In B. Thames (Ed.), How should one live? An introduction to ethics and moral reasoning (3rd ed., pp. XX-XX). Bridgepoint Education.

Mill, J. S. (1863). Utilitarianism. Publisher.

Thames, B. (2018). How should one live? Introduction to ethics and moral reasoning (3rd ed.). San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education.