In 1967 Philippa Foot presented the trolley problem and it quickly became one of the most controversial issues in both ethics and philosophy. The dilemma is as follows: Five unsuspecting people are tied to the railroad tracks and a train approaches them, braking. You stand on the footbridge that crosses the train tracks vertically and watch the unfolding drama. If the train doesn't stop, the five people will surely be killed.
Next to you, on the footbridge, stands a large man. If you push him and he falls off the bridge onto the tracks, his heavy body will slow down and eventually stop the train, saving the five people. (You can't stop the train yourself by jumping off the bridge, only the big man is heavy enough). Would you kill the burly gentleman?
Now what if in the scenario the one person you have to kill to save the five is your child, your parent, or your brother? Less than about a third of the respondents would choose to save the five in such a situation!
What does all this suggest about human nature? We can and do make split-second calculations that lead to the murder of a fellow human being and furthermore we change our decision if the danger involves a family member.
Several psychologists, including Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his study on decision-making mechanisms, believe that the brain uses two different cognitive systems: one for quick, instinctive decisions and another that makes slower, more logical choices.
These two systems can come into conflict, such as in the train dilemma, where normal people have a moral aversion to murder (the instinctive system) but recognize that one death, mathematically speaking, is preferable to five (the reasoning system).
Now imagine that you are a transplant surgeon and you have five patients, all of whom are in need of immediate transplants: heart, lung, whatever, with no suitable transplant found.
A young traveler comes to the hospital for a routine test and it turns out, hypothetically, that his organs are compatible with all five patients. Would it be right to kill the young traveller so that his five organs can be taken from him and transplanted into your patients?
Most people answer with a resounding no. "No, that's not right...". People condemn murder regardless of how many lives are saved.
I wonder if a society that would allow or even condone the sacrifice of one life over many as part of its culture would stand a chance of surviving for long?
The answer is no. In the long run, no individual would be willing to participate in a society by making the necessary concessions and sacrifices, no matter what the ultimate reward for that participation might be, when they would risk at any moment being sacrificed for the sake of others who are not even close relatives.
Morality evolves with us, as does our altruism. However much we may want to believe or even hope for a morally perfect society, we must admit that true altruism does not exist, since all our actions are fundamentally selfishly motivated.