Solving the Vegan Debate – Using the Trolley Problem

It’s really hard to make others see things from your perspective, sometimes. If they’re not criticising, then people often applaud vegetarianism and veganism, but finish up with a statement along the lines of ‘Oh, but I could never go vegan, I love cheese/bacon/steak too much’.  The following ethical questions are a challenge that will open discussion and opinions to those meat-eaters who wish they could be vegan but don’t commit.

The Trolley Problem is not something that I’ve made up. I only learned about it recently, but it’s been used in ethics and psychology since the 1960’s. There are many variations of it, but I first read about it in a book called ‘Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals’ by Hal Herzog. If you’re interested in Anthrozoology, Human-Animal Relations or Psychology, I recommend giving it a read. I haven’t finished it but so far I’m finding it to be a very interesting read. Anyway, the Trolley Problem is relatively straightforward. You have two tracks. There are five people stood on one track. The trolley is hurtling towards them. If it collides, they will die. On the other track there is one person. You are in the middle, next to a lever. You can pull the lever and redirect the trolley onto the track where one person is stood. What do you do?

Kill five people, or kill one person? Is it morally permissible to divert the trolley and prevent five deaths at the cost of one human life? 

I don’t suppose there is a right or wrong answer, it’s just something to be debated. The scenario is unlikely to ever happen, so you can rest easy knowing that whatever you say isn’t ever going to become a serious decision. According to Herzog, 90% of people’s responses agree that it is morally permissible to pull the lever. Yes, one person dies, but five are saved. Logically, it makes sense.

Another variation which Herzog draws upon a few pages later is a variation developed by Lewis Petrinovich, in an attempt to understand how people respond when it’s humans and animals involved. The scenario is exactly the same, except the five people are replaced with the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Do you pull the lever and sacrifice one man, or do you do nothing and let the endangered gorillas die?

Surprisingly, before I read further I decided in my head that I would probably sacrifice the one man to stop the gorillas dying. I realised I was in the minority. Almost everyone that Petrinovich interviewed said they would favour the human over the animals. I don’t know what the response would have been if only vegans and animal conservationists had been asked, but I’d like to think that I’m not the only person who thinks that the sacrifice of one human life would be justified in order to prevent a species extinction. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just got a really skewed perspective on things.

For the sake of it being a fun challenge to throw at family members, I’ll provide the other two examples that Herzog uses.

“The run-away trolley is headed for five people. This time you are crossing a footbridge over the tracks. Right next to you is a large man. You can save the five people if you push the man off the bridge into the path of the trolley. Is this morally permissible?” – Understandably, most people answered ‘no’, it is not morally permissible to push a man off a bridge to save five others. The idea of personally involving oneself in the scenario is a lot worse than simply impersonally pulling a lever.

“The trolley is speeding toward a man whom you do not know. But you can throw a switch and send it hurtling toward your pet dog? Should you?” – Apparently, the most common response, again, is to save the human over the animal. I really don’t know what I’d do… these ethical scenarios are so frustrating.

But how does this apply to veganism? Well, months ago, before I even knew about the trolley problem, I saw somebody had shared a video about making ethical decisions. It was the trolley problem, but from a vegan perspective. I thought it was pretty powerful, so I’m going to share it with you now. After discussing with your family/friends the above four scenarios, you should provide them with this one and see how they try and respond.

A trolley is speeding down the tracks towards a group of animals – a cow, a pig, a sheep and a chicken. If it hits them, it will kill them. The other track is empty. You are stood in the middle, by a lever. If you pull the lever, it will divert the trolley to go down the empty track instead. No animals will be killed. What do you do?

There is literally no reason for anyone to not pull the lever. So, when they inevitably respond this way, you can gently inform them that by going vegan, you are pulling the lever and saving those animals from harm. It’s a pretty powerful concept, because unlike the other examples, this one can be applied to a very real, very sensitive situation. As individuals, we all have the power to pull that lever, to divert the trolley. We have the power to prevent unnecessary death with no additional cost.

Why wouldn’t we?

For more information on how to go vegan, you can check out this page.

How does one person make a difference?

What do you think? Is this a potentially persuasive argument for veganism? And what are your thoughts on the other trolley scenarios? What decisions would you make?  If you liked this post, please let me know! Don’t forget to share this page and subscribe to the website for new content. You can also find me on YoutubeTwitter,Instagram, Google + and Tumblr for even more!


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