“A runaway train is heading towards five workers on a railway line. There’s no way of warning, but you’re standing near a lever that operates some points. Switch the points, and the train goes down a spur. Trouble is, there’s another worker on that bit of track too, but it’s one fatality instead of five. Should you do that?” Here we have the trolley problem, which since its first articulation in 1967 by Philippa Foot has become the classic example of an ethical dilemma as well as perhaps the best known thought experiment in all of philosophy.
This explanation of the trolley problem comes from one of the Harry Shearer-narrated BBC- and Open University-made animations previously featured here on Open Culture. The short video above takes a different approach, not just using a children’s train set to illustrate it but then putting the famous question to the child himself.
“Uh oh, Nicholas,” says the two-year-old’s father from behind the camera, “this train is going to crash into these five people! Should we move the train to go this way, or should we let it go that way?” The elegance of the toddler’s solution, implemented without hesitation, must be seen to be appreciated.
The father, E. J. Masicampo of Wake Forest University, researches “the effortful mental processes that seem to separate humans from other animals: resisting temptations and impulses, reasoning and decision making, thinking about and simulating non-present events, and making plans for the future.” Among his professional goals, he lists working toward “a theory of the human consciousness” by uncovering “how conscious thought contributes to human functioning in light of its apparent limitations.” He’s taken on a problem even harder than the one with the trolleys; perhaps young Nicholas, what with his demonstrated gift of “thinking outside the box,” invaluable in the philosophical disciplines, can offer some assistance.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.