Nautilus

It’s Time to Retire the “Trolley Problem”

In the 1960s, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot devised a thought experiment that would revolutionize her field. This ethical puzzle, today known as the “trolley problem,” has become so influential—not just in philosophy but also in neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and meme culture—that it’s garnered its own tongue-in-cheek sub-discipline, called “trolleyology.” That body of commentary, wrote one philosopher, “makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes.”

The person largely responsible for popularizing the trolley problem was the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. Her 1976 paper, “Killing, Letting Die, and

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