A new way to solve the age-old conundrum of whether it's worth sacrificing one for the many

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Take a look at the virtual upgrade of an old thought experiment, conducted by Carlos David Navarrete, a psychologist at Michigan State University. Which should win out - personal morality or the greater good? And what if either one involves hitting people with a train?

If you had to choose between one person getting killed or five people getting killed, you'd pick the one with the lower death toll, right? Ah, but there's a catch. The five people were going to get killed without your intervention. They were hiking along train tracks in a cut through a narrow canyon and a runaway train came through and killed them. Clearly, that's not your fault. The one person, however, was going to be fine, hiking along another fork of the track in a parallel canyon. You can switch the train from one track to another, but if you do, the single hiker's death will be directly, and consciously, the result of your actions, not just the cruel hand of fate. You will have saved five people, which is arguably the greater good, but personally killed one innocent person. What do you do?

A group at Michigan State University put that question, in 3D virtual video game form, to unhappy experiment subjects, while using sensors on their fingertips to monitor their reactions. Ninety percent of the 147 subjects switched the tracks, killing one person to save five. Three people pulled the switch, but then switched it back to its original route. Eleven people never touched the switch and let the car run it original course, killing the five hikers.


An analysis of the fingerprint sensors showed the people who didn't pull the switch — the situation shown in the above 2D simulation to the disconcertingly upbeat music — were more emotionally excited than any other group. Was it the helplessness of not, in their point of view, being able to do anything useful? Was it them freezing up and not being able to make a decision? There's no way, right now, to tell. The only thing we know for sure is the simulators definitely did not need to add in the screams of the hikers at the end, but that they chose to anyway. What are the ethics of that?

Via Discovery.

Video: Michigan State University