‘Absurd Trolley Problems’ Presents Increasingly Ridiculous Ethical Dilemmas

The Trolley Problem is thought experiments that philosophers and ethicists have been tinkering with for decades. If you’re not familiar with the trolley problem, it goes like this: imagine that a trolley is racing down a track, and is about to hit five people tied to it. If you pull a lever, you can divert the trolley to another track with only one person tied to it. What do you do? 

The question is so ubiquitous that it was even the subject of an episode of sitcom The Good Place, and if you recognize the drawing above you most likely know it as a meme, which takes the basic concept and twists into increasingly ridiculous shapes. Absurd Trolley Problems, developed by Neal Agarwal, first offers you the normal variant of the trolley problem, and then and then also spins wildly out into several other directions. 

Agarwal told Motherboard that there’s something inherently funny about the trolley problem itself.

“I think the trolley problem and all its variations are so funny because they turn thousands of years of philosophical debate into a simple yes or no question,” he said. “I also think humor is the perfect antidote to an existential crisis, and the trolley problem lets us blow off some steam after thinking about hard philosophical problems.”

There isn’t a solution to the trolley problem. Like Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru, it’s more meant to be a rhetorical device that you use to understand things about yourself. Despite that, most people feel strongly that there is a correct way to handle this kind of scenario—I know that I feel like you should pull that lever and kill one person instead of five, and I’d be surprised if anyone chose differently.

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“I think that we just assume that something so simple must have a right answer, and it bothers us that it doesn’t,” Agarwal said. “I think it’s very hard to answer the trolley problem (and variations) without thinking about your core beliefs. So when someone disagrees with your answer it feels like they’re disagreeing with your way of viewing the world.”

In Agarwal’s browser game, you not only see what percentage of people answered the same way you did in the original trolley problem, but also in a series of increasingly silly escalations to the problem. What if when you pulled the lever, it sent the trolley forward in time to kill five people in the future? What if your life savings was on the other track, or your best friend? What if you’re a reincarnated being, destined to be reincarnated again into each of the five people on the other track?

“My favorite problem is the mystery box where you’re choosing between a 10% chance of 10 people or 50% chance of 2 because it’s just so ridiculous,” Agarwal said. “But it also adds an interesting element of probability and it forces you to think about best and worst case scenarios.”

At the end of Absurd Trolley Problems, the game thanks you for solving philosophy. It also gives you your kill count, just in case you were curious about the hypothetical cost of your moral beliefs.