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Would you kill the older people?

05 Feb 2014

Philosophers have long used the "trolley problem" to debate issues in ethics around how we treat others.

Reading a recent personal blog by Marc Dubois, Executive Director of MSF UK, on why older people are ignored in humanitarian emergencies got me thinking about the trolley problem in terms of older people.

Five or one?

Developed originally by Philippa Foot in 1967, the trolley problem poses a simple ethical problem that you can read in its entirety here. But below is the relevant bit!

The trolley problem

A runaway trolley is hurtling down the track with no brakes. Ahead, five people are tied to the rails. You are standing on the side of the track. By turning a lever you can divert the trolley down a side track. That will save five lives. Unfortunately, one man is on this side track, and he would be killed.

What should you do?

Studies have shown that 90% of respondents think it is right to divert the trolley. But what if the choice was not so one-sided in its impact i.e. number of lives saved?

What if the choice had to be made (removing the option of doing nothing at all) and one had to decide on the type of people you saved?

The Aid trolley

So keeping that in mind, let me pose another "trolley problem" this time in terms of disaster aid.

The Aid trolley problem

You are back at the track. A huge typhoon has wiped out everything in the next town. Luckily the neighbouring town up the track has pulled together all it can spare and loaded a trolley with food and relief supplies and sent it on its way. The trolley is headed for the station at the disaster-ridden town and can stop at one of two platforms in the station. One is next to an orphanage with five children. The other is next to an older people's home with five older people.

By turning the lever you can divert the trolley down one platform to save either the five children, killing the five older people in the process or save the five older people, killing the five children in the process. By not turning the lever the trolley will go down a third platform that has been destroyed by the hurricane and all the supplies will be wasted.

What should you do? (Leave a comment in the box below)

This blog in no way represents the views of HelpAge International. This blog was inspired by an excerpt from the book "Would you kill the fat man?" in Foreign Affairs magazine by David Edmonds.

Your comments

Long Prom Dresses

I抦 not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent info I was looking for this info for my mission. eeeeee

Mayur Paul

@Commenter, Thanks for your comment and you are welcome. You can find more information about our emergency related work by clicking on "What we do" above and navigating to "Emergencies". You will find a lot of the information qouted in the blog. Hope that is useful.

Shegufta Sharmin

My trolley will go to the children's station first and pick them up all in the trolley and then stop at the OP's station. All aids will be disbursed among the OPs with a condition that they will look after all children. Thank you Mayur for the thought provoking write up.

Mayur Paul

@Shegufta Sharmin - A very good solution indeed. Experience at HelpAge shows that older people will volunteer to look after the children even when society at large may fail them. In Africa, e.g. many children orphaned due to the effects of HIV virus and conflict are cared for by older people.

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Author profile


Mayur Paul
Country: U.K., India
Job title: Head of Communications and Brand

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.