Tram Dilemmas: Empathy and Altruism

Among the different fictitious dilemmas, those of the tram have been constituted as those that most put to the test the capacity of reflection on the values ​​that we consider correct. Discover them!


Certain situations confront us with conflicts of a moral nature. These are situations that generate a struggle between different personal values. In this sense, ethical dilemmas, real or fictitious, are very interesting as a way of studying how we manage our beliefs and our values.

Among the many fictitious dilemmas, the dilemmas of the tram have been established as positive when it comes to stimulating reflection on the values ​​that we consider correct. It is a type of dilemma, in addition that makes us prioritize between several correct values, which usually results in an internal conflict.

The tram dilemmas were devised for a mental thought experiment. The first of them is the work of the British philosopher Phillipa Foot. The second corresponds to Judith Jarvis Thompson, an American moral philosopher, who extensively analyzed the first dilemma and expanded it with his second dilemma.

The first tram dilemma

The first dilemma raises the following moral question:

“A railway car runs along some tracks. On his way there are five people who can not escape. Fortunately, you can hit a switch that will divert the car to a dead end, thus removing the car from the five people … but with a price. There is another person also caught in that detour, and the wagon will kill that person. Should you hit the switch?”

That is, or it interferes in the lives of five people, or interferes in the life of one. Both entail responsibility over human lives. Thompson’s version is that the decision should be made that less damage will cause, in this case, save five lives, interfering one. Alexander Friedman, on the other hand, proposed another completely different solution and considered that we are nobody to change the course of events in that way. Hundreds of solutions to the dilemma have been proposed without any having become completely satisfactory.

This dilemma has also been experienced virtually by a team of psychologists from Michigan State University, under Carlos David Navarrete. The study showed a result of more than 90% of participants activating the switch and deciding to save five lives in exchange for one. The participants who did not activate the switch were those who suffered a greater emotional response throughout the test. It was assumed that there are people who are paralyzed in high anxiety states and can not react.

The second dilemma

The second dilemma, proposed in this case by Thompson, is as follows:

“As before, a railroad car goes uncontrolled in one way to five people. But this time, you are standing behind a very large stranger on a pedestrian walkway above the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to throw the stranger onto the tracks. He will die when he falls, of course. But his corpulence will block the car, saving five lives. Should you push him?”

The author argues that, unlike the first dilemma, where there is no intention (or conscience) of doing harm, in this second dilemma we must intervene directly in a homicide.

To highlight the experiment carried out on this dilemma by Carsten de Dreu, behavioral scientist and professor of psychology at the University of Leiden. Dreu posed this dilemma to the participants before and after making them snort oxytocin. The data obtained before intranasal oxytocin were similar to those obtained in previous experiments. Most were negative responses to the idea of ​​pushing someone and killing him.

But, under the effects of oxytocin, most participants were willing to sacrifice a strange individual.

Oxytocin and empathy

Empathy seems to be linked to our evolutionary history: different studies suggest that there is a good genetic load at its base. In 2009, neuroscientists Sarina Rodrigues and Laura Saslow of Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) conducted a study that focused on a particular gene. It was the oxytocin receptor, of which there are three variants AA, AG or GG. The study identified that the participants with the highest level of empathy possessed the GG variant of this gene.

Empathy and altruism

Empathy seems to be closely related to altruism. Altruism is defined as concern or disinterested attention by the other, contrary to selfishness.

Social psychologists work in a vast field of research in this field. They are based on the theory of social exchange, which explains social relations as an economy in which maximum benefit is sought in exchange for a minimum cost (Foa and Foa, 1975).

What do the dilemmas of the tram show us?

The most remarkable conclusion of the trolley dilemmas when they are recreated in research studies is that many of the participants, facing the second dilemma, realize that the first dilemma was not so simple to solve.

Ultimately, both decide who to sacrifice, although in the first case it is much more impersonal and there is no direct physical action on the possible victim (it is far away, like the other five that are in the other way). Let’s say that each of the lives that can be saved are at the same level, and that such active participation is not necessary.

This seems to activate some system of inhibition of guilt that in the second dilemma does not occur, (with the exception of an increase in oxytocin levels). The second dilemma confronts the participant with another type of moral crossroads. So much so that several of the experiments carried out on this second dilemma invert the percentage of the first dilemma in terms of people who decide to interfere, preferring, in most cases, to do nothing.

The tram dilemmas, although they may seem somewhat abstract and unreal at first, are widely used in social responsibility, in politics and in the hiring of executives of large companies. In addition to facing important conflicts of values, these two dilemmas are very useful to understand others when they act or make decisions that do not conform to what we think.

To get an idea, would you rethink your answers to the dilemmas if the five trapped people you could save were your children? Or if it was your son who was in the other way, or if you could pull the bridge you were.