Menu Close

The Trolley Problem and Psychopaths

by Eva Polovina

Imagine standing beside train tracks. Runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks and is about to run over five workers who don’t hear it coming. Even if they notice it, it will be too late for them to move out of the way in time. There is a lever connected to the tracks, and if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down another set of tracks and won’t run over 5 workers. However, on this track stand one worker, just as oblivious as other five workers

What do you do-do you pull the lever, saving 5 people but resulting in one death or do you do nothing?

This moral dilemma is called The Trolley Problem and it was developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. There are many variations of this problem. The trolley dilemma can be used to probe our moral intuitions and it is also related to psychopathy. You can guess that psychopaths would rather pull the lever in this case.

Depending on your choice for the problem above, you can fall into two categories on moral reasoning. If you chose to end a life to save 5 more, your judgment is utilitarian. If you didn’t pull the lever, you made a non-utilitarian judgment. Utilitarian judgment is focused on the outcome, while the non-utilitarian is focused on morality. Non-utilitarian view states that you can’t tell a lie even if it saved someone’s life because it is wrong to tell lies.

Now here is another dilemma:

“Imagine you are a doctor and you have five patients who all need transplants in order to live. Two each require one lung, another two each require a kidney, and the fifth needs a heart.

In the next ward is another individual recovering from a broken leg. But other than their knitting bones, they’re perfectly healthy. So, would you kill the healthy patient and harvest their organs to save five others?“

This is the same dilemma with the same consequences-five deaths or one death. However, more people would reject killing the healthy patient here. There is a difference between actively killing a person and letting someone die. In the first dilemma, if you push the lever, you actively save five people and let one person die. But if you take a patient’s organs, you are actively killing them. The principle of double-effect states that it is allowed to indirectly cause harm for the pursuit of the greater good, but it is not allowed to directly cause harm even in the pursuit for the greater good.

Trolley dilemma is related to psychopathy as psychopaths solely employ their logical reasoning when solving moral dilemmas. Tassy et al. explores the connection between psychopathy and moral dilemmas. In the study, 102 students completed a questionnaire with ten moral and nine non-moral dilemmas. The task targeted judgment and hypothetical action of participants. Participants were evaluated on psychopathic traits using Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. Results showed that those with high psychopathic traits gave more utilitarian responses for the hypothetical choice. While moral judgement of individuals with a high level of psychopathic traits was the same as that of individuals with low psychopathic traits, psychopathic individuals were more likely to make an effective choice decision that would lead to the death of one person, but overall result in the greater good. Scoring high on psychopathy and having a hypofunctional Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (responsible for processing risk and fear) resulted in utilitarian action. Psychopathic traits altered moral choice, but not moral judgement. That means that psychopaths might know something is wrong, but they still did it. Psychopaths showed reduced activity in VMPFc during moral choice of action and increased activity in rDLPFc (responsible for executive functions such as planning, inhibition, and abstract reasoning). As psychopaths lack emotional reactions, they have to rely on the allocentric judgment of the situation. In non-psychopathic individuals, the distress of others causes emotional arousal, so this makes them less likely to give a utilitarian response.

In the moment of their decision, psychopaths concentrated on what they would be getting out of the situation as opposed to what they were losing. 1 death is less than 5 deaths, right? In a situation when you have to think fast and choose the most effective solution, psychopaths lean towards more immoral solutions such as killing a healthy patient to supply the other five with organs. Although these decisions would be seen as morally wrong by most people, the final output of the decision is more lives saved in trolley dilemma situations. We can see examples of this in real life when a psychopathic CEO decides to fire a loyal and honest employee who hasn’t been bringing much profit for the company, although that person may have been working for the company for decades. Psychopathic see the final result of their action and if the result is worth it, they take every measure to achieve it.



Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *