Watch a 2‑Year-Old Solve Philosophy’s Famous Ethical “Trolley Problem” (It Doesn’t End Well)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions on Ethics Nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Shear­er

9‑Year-Old Philoso­pher Pon­ders the Mean­ing of Life and the Uni­verse

Are You a Psy­chopath? Take the Test (And, If You Fail, It’s Not All Bad News)

The Epis­te­mol­o­gy of Dr. Seuss & More Phi­los­o­phy Lessons from Great Children’s Sto­ries

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.

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Comments (3)
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  • Craig Burley says:

    It’s near­ly the per­fect solu­tion to the trol­ley prob­lem. As I point­ed out a cou­ple of decades ago in a moral phi­los­o­phy sem­i­nar, the ide­al solu­tion is to tie the pos­er of the prob­lem to whichev­er sec­tion of the track you decide to hit as a les­son not to ask sil­ly gen­danken­ex­per­i­ments in moral phi­los­o­phy.

  • MJ Moore says:

    Guys: This is a 2 year old. He is play­ing with a TOY. Crash­ing a toy train on a toy track into 6 toy peo­ple is way more fun than only 5.

  • HDS54 says:

    A fat guy, stand­ing beside anoth­er fat guy, throughs or could through him­self off the bridge, and thus save the 5.

    Is this out­side the box think­ing and does it add valu­able to the philo­soph­i­cal dis­ci­plines?

    The out­come con­strued as either net pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive and there­fore accept­able or not.

    The ques­tion then become, should any action or inac­tion, what-so-ever, needs to be sub­ject­ed to Mon­day Morn­ing judge­ment, account­abil­i­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty by those who do lit­tle more the learn­ing from his­to­ry?

    Cyn­i­cism, sto­icism or per­haps noth­ing less than nar­cis­sism.

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