The trolley problem: notes towards a Buddhist perspective

A recent post raised the so-called “trolley problem”. If you’re not familiar, check out Wikipedia.

And gave a link to a test where apparently Buddhist monks responded like psychopaths!

So I thought I’d make a few remarks about this.

First up, a shout out to the psychopath community! Formally, these are people diagnosed with what is known today as “anti-social personality disorder”, which is characterized by a lack of empathy and morality. It’s a mental illness, and it doesn’t mean you’re evil. It means that one of the key guardrails that stands between us and evil—our conscience—is missing. So it’s a lot harder to do good. That means that they need our support and empathy, even if they can’t return it.

Not all psychopaths are serial killers. Many, in fact, lead a perfectly moral life. It’s just that they don’t do so out of an inner sense of morality, but because they calculate that it is better for them if they are moral. People like them, they do well at work, and they don’t go to jail. This is not to say that all psychopaths are like this, but it is possible.

This way of looking at morality is a part of the Buddha’s analysis of morality, too. That is, he argued that sheer self-interest was enough to lead a moral life. Which, rather surprisingly, makes Buddhism a perfect moral system for psychopaths. Yay us!

Of course, the Buddha didn’t reduce morality to self-interest; he merely pointed out that the two do not conflict.

So this gives us a starting point for understanding how a monk’s response may be similar to a psychopath’s. As part of our Buddhist education, we learn reflect rationally on our moral choices, to step back a little from an immediate, emotional judgment, and to try to look at it from different perspectives. Obviously this is (as the article notes) not exactly the same as what a psychopath does, as it is informed by compassion and a solid moral compass. Still, it’s not entirely different, either.

The monks tested were from Mahayana traditions, where there is a long background of posing such moral dilemmas. Such dilemmas are much less common in Theravada, and I wonder if that would make a difference in the responses.

I’ve long felt uncomfortable with the trolley problem, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s because it creates a rather unrecognized split in how moral intuitions are applied.

On the one hand, it forces an immediate and narrowly utilitarian response. You have to decide either A or B, in a context where there are clear stakes. Moreover, it’s philosophically designed to test the relevance of the idea of “moral intuitions”, especially as they apply to a supposed moral “absolute” like the taking of life.

On the other hand, we’re applying this extremely emotional level of moral judgment while comfortably ensconced in our philosophy tutorial or our bedroom. Our physical and emotional distance from the choice makes it very different from cases where such choices must actually be made. Of course, that’s the point: to train and test moral reasoning before we need it. Still, it bothers me.

Looking from a less immediate point of view, the trolley problem overlooks many dimensions of moral life. The question of kamma and result is ignored. But what if we were to do that calculus? If you refrain from doing anything, are you making any bad kamma? Is it making worse kamma to choose to kill? And if so, is that more important long term that the lives of those killed? They’ll get reborn, which sucks, but they don’t make any bad kamma simply by being killed. But if the one who does the choosing makes bad kamma (I’m not saying they do, but I’m not sure that they don’t), then their experience of the results of that may well be greater suffering over a longer time than the supposed victims. Hence a purely rational utilitarian approach might say to not pull the lever.

Besides this, there is also the issue of context and character. Moral acts don’t exist in a vacuum; they are part of what makes us who we are, conditioned by and conditioning our self, and also those around us. Morality is a social as much as a personal reality. What of the whole problem of setting examples? Might it be better, empirically speaking, to simply adhere to the dictum “take no life”? Even if it works out poorly in this specific case, might it still have a better outcome in the long term? Once we start making exceptions, where does it lead?

To be clear, I’m not arguing for such a position, merely making the point that there is a lot about our moral life that the trolley problem leaves out. I suspect that its value lies not so much in clarifying moral intuitions, but that it provides a clear and dramatic context within which morality can be discussed.

Perhaps one drawback of such approaches is that, by narrowing the context, they make the idea of rational morality more plausible than it really is. In the real world, things are too complicated, and we go with our gut. There’s no reason that an (informed) gut should contain less wisdom than a highly artificial rationality.


Do psychopaths have the capacity to experience fully all four of the Bhramaviharas, namely, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity? My intuition is that they do not, which is why they are deemed psychopaths.

If not, are they capable of progress on the path, and how can non-psychopaths assist them?

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Nobody truly “knows” what a psychopath has the ability to experience, except maybe the psychopath himself. Books are written and people believe some of them. But do we ever know for sure? We don’t even know what our partner or closest friend really thinks about something! We barely know ourselves let alone others. Either way, most of us, if not all of us, will never have to make the trolley choice.

For fun though, if for some reason I was in that position, I would watch it play out like a movie and take no life anyways. So, I am basically useless in this discourse lol.


Nobody knows with certainty what another mind has the ability to experience, full stop. Nonetheless, we acknowledge the category of the “psychopath,” so therefore we must either agree on what that category of person entails or exclude it from discussion.

Oh, I agree psychopaths exist. Do we know what they feel or think? No. Unless of course you are one and can elaborate. But even then, I do not know.


Qu’est-ce que c’est
Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away!


Nevertheless: consider that there are something over 1% of the population who has anti-social personality disorder. And my personal opinion is that Buddhism (especially in the West) positively selects for people with all forms of personality disorder; after all, who more wants to be free of suffering that someone trapped in an ill mind?

If I’m right, there’s probably quite a few psychopaths reading this. Hey y’all!

Do I know what they’re thinking or feeling? Nope! but I can guess two things: (1) they’re quite pleased to find a reference to people like them that isn’t just dismissing them as evil monsters; and (2) they’re trying to figure out a way to use this to their advantage. I hope they can do that in a way that doesn’t hurt others.


Ven Pandita gave his take on the trolly car dilemma in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics in 2014



Speaking of consistency, though it’s been a good while since I read it, Do You Think What You Think You Think was rather eye opening for me. If I remember correctly they include the Trolley Problem.


This is one I must check out.

Unfortunately for this discussion, Ven Pandita’s Trolley Car Problem adds a driver of the trolley which adds different implications from the classic TCP cited above.

Using the TCP referred to above, I’ve thought that one way for a Buddhist practicing the Dhamma to hold this dilemma is to simply let the chips fall where they may with compassion as the Buddha defined compassion in AN 5.162:

“How should you get rid of resentment for a person whose behavior by way of body and speech is impure, and who doesn’t get an openness and clarity of heart from time to time? Suppose a person was traveling along a road, and they were sick, suffering, gravely ill. And it was a long way to a village, whether ahead or behind. And they didn’t have any suitable food or medicine, or a competent carer, or someone to bring them to the neighborhood of a village. Then another person traveling along the road sees them, and thinks of them with nothing but compassion, kindness, and sympathy: ‘Oh, may this person get suitable food or medicine, or a competent carer, or someone to bring them to the neighborhood of a village. Why is that? So that they don’t come to ruin right here.’ In the same way, at that time you should ignore that person’s impure behavior by way of speech and body, and the fact that they don’t get an openness and clarity of heart from time to time, and think of them with nothing but compassion, kindness, and sympathy: ‘Oh, may this person give up bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and develop good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind. Why is that? So that, when their body breaks up, after death, they’re not reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell.’ That’s how to get rid of resentment for that person.”

What would the Buddha have done? Could you see the Buddha shoving the fat man on to the track? Or would he have only held those people in his mind with compassion and sympathy? Are there any accounts in the suttas where the Buddha took actions like the TCP?


I can very well relate to that feeling. I too have always felt uncomfortable with it, and still do.

Personally though, for me the thing is pretty clear. I am not saying this is what is right; I am only saying that for me personally, I can’t see any other option.

I definitely can’t imagine I would ever be able to deliberately kill one person, be it even in order to save five others. Even if among those five would be someone I know and love.

I am not saying I would never do that, because I think this is not possible as long as I haven’t really been in such a situation. What I am saying is that with all the imagination that I have, I am unable to see myself do such a thing as deliberately killing one person in order to save five others.

It’s not that the life of the five doesn’t bother me. To the contrary: It would be terrible to have to watch such a thing happening. But after all, it would happen, whether I were present on that occasion or not. But that one person can still live if I don’t kill them.

I have met people who witnessed terrible accidents and couldn’t do anything. It’s very likely for them to feel guilty because they can’t do anything, although it’s really not within their power. This is because it is much more disturbing to feel powerless than to feel guilty. And, thinking about it now, it might even be that experiments like this are thought out just because this feeling of being powerless is so unbearable. I’d rather be guilty for killing one person than powerless while watching the death of five …

As I said, for me personally it’s unimaginable.


I’ll add a twist, if I may? :japanese_ogre:

Imagine yourself getting off, right after the trolley has run over those unfortunates. You’re covered in sweat and blood, shaky on your feet, but unhurt! You’re immediately mobbed by the wives and children of those who were working on the tracks… both those who have survived and those who have died. And there’s even some policemen, wanting to find out “What happened? What did you do? Why?

What answer will you give? Search your heart… Is that the right answer?

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There is another issue here, which is whether, in a situation with severe time pressures, someone would have the presence of mind (some might say mindfulness) to thoroughly think through all the options and implications presented in scenarios such as the Trolley Problem. There have been numerous well-publicized airplane crashes caused by pilot error where investigators later determined the pilots lacked situational awareness and therefore could not fully think through the various problems that have presented themselves. To militate against these eventualities, airlines now train pilots in what is called “cockpit resource management” which entails having crewmembers responsible for making decisions delegated to them so that they remain aware of the situation and not lose sight of flying the airplane while trying to trouble-shoot problems.

It seems to me that the Trolley Problem assumes too much in terms of people’s ability to rationally think through a problem in a crisis situation. On the other hand, maintaining awareness and mindfulness at all times could be a benefit to those presented with a situation which requires a quick response. I don’t know for sure if modern cockpit resource management training at airlines includes elements of mindfulness practice, but it wouldn’t surprise me with the increasing popularity of mindfulness practice in everyday life (even when not associated with formal Buddhist teaching).


Hmm, I don’t know whether this refers to “psychopath”. Recently I’ve been in a retreat with a near relative who has 13+ years diagnoses of psychosis , and I think schizophrenia or at least schizoid phases are in the recepture (? english noun?) of the mind’s soup/stew…
We two had many walks together, and a lot of talks about her inner life.
Many things are easier to understand when you know the in-side of the individual’s his-/her-story, even if it does not always reflect the way, his/her environment would remember this.

One part was, that I think I’ve learned much of the inside of someone who would have been labelled “psychopath” and also the “psychopath” has learned that there might be alternative experiences of the world (sometimes helping out of the “~path”-part of the word): containing the will to share, as well as the basic ingredients metta and karuna, which, if experienced, is a very nice medicine for improving well-being…

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“This was horrible. Let us prevent this situation in the future.”

The trolley problem is the last link in a chain of catastrophe. The skillful decisions are made earlier in that chain rather than later. Another example is the Challenger rocket explosion and the infamous o-ring. Even COVID is a bit of a trolley problem that we’re in the middle of. The skillful responses take time to develop and require careful planning and prior cooperation. So the trolley problem is a bit like asking “have you stopped beating your spouse?” Such questions skew awareness away from considering the skillful and tempt us to indulge the reactive.

Consider, for example, that the time spent on discussing trolley end cases could have been spent on discussing how to improve trolley safeguards. :thinking:


The trolley problem, and moral problems in general, are not separate from how meaning is constructed. For example, to what extent should we trust universals? can we say that what appears to be a more inclusive truth is necessarily a higher truth?

Is intuition a reliable guide for moral action? Would describing sexual drive and self view as “intuitions” be accurate?

Morality is often associated with selflessness, which is as ambiguous and difficult to define as the self itself. For example, what is the difference between selflessness and self denial. If psychopathy is an example of an extreme, pathological altruism can be provided as a counter example, which is probably more widespread but much less spoke about.

Would saving people’s lives always be the most compassionate action towards them? are humans only motivated by survival? or is human action can be equally explained by seeking death?

The near enemy of compassion is suffering with others, while the far enemy is indifference. How would that solve the problem?

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I think that the Trolley Problem being so confounding for so many and so frequently provoking an instinctive discomfort actually illustrates its relevance. As the Atlantic article linked in the OP points out in its subheading, it “has big implications for driverless cars.” But what does that mean for Buddhist ethicists?

Much of the discomfort around the trolley problem reflects frustration of its limited applicability to real life because, like so many other thought experiments, it’s just too abstract. It’s delightful for classrooms and stimulating conversations with friends, but we all must grow up and live in the real world where basically no one actually faces a trolley problem.

Even if we do undertake the thought experiment with utmost seriousness, our imaginary knowledge about the set of perceived conditions we would hypothetically face is limited, because try as we might, we can’t mentally recreate the inevitable sense of alarm if not outright panic we would almost certainly experience.

That primal reaction has a profound effect on our thinking. Our brains get flooded with hormones and it effectively changes reality since our perception is so radically altered. You can’t recreate that mind-state in a either a wet or dry laboratory – at least not without a lot of ethically dicey and intensive methodological procedural development that has yet to happen – so we can’t speak or even speculate confidently about what we would be thinking in the moment.

The reason “trolleology” is trending is because the trolley problem in its driest and most abstract form really does, or soon will, have real-world implications. Someone, somewhere is going to have to take responsibility for the computer-code logic tree that will tell a driverless car which and how many people should should incur harm in the unfortunate event in which severe harm is unavoidalble. The accountability buck has to stop somewhere, and where it does, that person (or committee or whatever) is taking the trolley problem extremely seriously, and their potential gut reactions aren’t relevant no matter how accurately they could predict or recreate them. It’s a matter of pure principle.

I suspect that those in the position to sign off on that code are understandably unsure of what that principle is, and in a sense they are crowd-sourcing answers to the question well beyond not just Silicon Valley, but beyond the classrooms of the elite universities that produced the engineers that made this all possible. And so we get TED talks, think-pieces in brainy magazines and threads like this one. It’s cool.

I would suggest that the most ethical thing we can do is take the question very seriously. It’s either that or drop out of society altogether, because driverless cars are soon to be part of society, and if we mindlessly participate without thought to their impact on life, then we are, to an extent, complicit.

Though it doesn’t point to a “solution” to the trolley problem, perhaps this passage from the Visuddhimagga on the development of metta is some help on what mind-state one should have in approaching difficult problems that don’t really have a solution.

Vissudhimagga, Chapter IX

  1. When his resentment towards that hostile person has been thus allayed,
    then he can turn his mind with loving-kindness towards that person too, just as
    towards the one who is dear, the very dear friend, and the neutral person. Then
    he should break down the barriers by practicing loving-kindness over and over
    again, accomplishing mental impartiality towards the four persons, that is to
    say, himself, the dear person, the neutral person and the hostile person.

  2. The characteristic of it is this. Suppose this person is sitting in a place with
    a dear, a neutral, and a hostile person, himself being the fourth; then bandits
    come to him and say, “Venerable sir, give us a bhikkhu,” and on being asked
    why, they answer, “So that we may kill him and use the blood of his throat as an
    offering;” then if that bhikkhu thinks, “Let them take this one, or this one,” he
    has not broken down the barriers. And also if he thinks, “Let them take me but
    not these three,” he has not broken down the barriers either. Why? Because he
    seeks the harm of him whom he wishes to be taken and seeks the welfare of the
    other only. But it is when he does not see a single one among the four people to
    be given to the bandits and he directs his mind impartially towards himself and
    towards those three people that he has broken down the barriers. Hence the
    Ancients said:

  3. When he discriminates between
    The four, that is himself, the dear,
    The neutral, and the hostile one,
    Then “skilled” is not the name he gets,
    Nor “having amity at will,”
    But only “kindly towards beings.”
    Now, when a bhikkhu’s barriers
    Have all the four been broken down,
    He treats with equal amity
    The whole world with its deities;
    Far more distinguished than the first
    Is he who knows no barriers.

  4. Thus the sign and access are obtained by this bhikkhu simultaneously
    with the breaking down of the barriers. But when breaking down of the barriers
    has been effected, he reaches absorption in the way described under the earth
    kasióa without trouble by cultivating, developing, and repeatedly practicing
    that same sign.

Greetings Bhante :anjal:

I just want to add few things from my experience about psychopathy that I think are important here.

First is that psychopaths have extremely distorted self-view in a psychological sense, which is the root cause of this disability. They usually extremely strongly deny that anything is wrong with them, and carry generally a very strong superiority complex, that is their own view which usually completely does not match what appears objectively. They think very highly of themselves, even when acting extremely cruel and being perceived as monsters by people who know their bad side.

They can hurt a lot of people around them, and even if someone complain, they will just blame others for thier miseries, and never see any fault in their actions. So almost every true psychopath will never admit they’re psychopaths, because they never admit that there is anything wrong with them, because denial of their bad side is the root of this illness. Thats why it is quite rare for psychopaths to go to psychotherapy or get any help, because they blame everyone else for all problems but themselves, and they never feel anything is wrong with them (lack of consience). Getting help would mean there is something wrong with them, and denying that is the essence of psychopathy. Also, psychopaths usually think they are happy, even if objectively their life appears miserable, because they deny everything that goes wrong and just blame and hate and hurt others for everything that is wrong. If they are miserable, they always blame someone else for it, and don’t admit that problem is rooted in their actions and perceptions. They always project all anger and disappointment to the outside world. I really doubt that many psychopaths acknowledge their illness. They rather attack everyone who shows them that something is wrong, saying that it is the one who wants to help them that are crazy. If they acknowledge that they’re psychopaths, they’re probably not that deep into psychopathy, or they’re very self-aware, but personally I haven’t met any who did. It is interesting how deep psychopathy is similar to deep alcoholic addiction (denial), and they oftentimes go together.

For me personally, true psychopathy and narcissism are among most unplesant kind of disability that we can deal with and I doubt you can do anything but avoid such people. And if they’re coping, that means they are not extreme form of psychopaths or narcissists. It is nice to be idealistic about such people until you meet and have to deal with them for a longer time period, then all idealism is crushed by reality.

Just my 2 pessimistic/realistic cents stemming from my own life experience, observations and understanding.

PS: I don’t deny the possibility that some super dooper spiritually powerful, full of metta and patience person like Ajahn Brahm might help a psychopath, or that some powerful spiritual experience might convert them to path of light. But for regular means I don’t have much hope and I would advice great caution to anyone dealing with true psychopath, for the sake of their own emotional well being. The fact that they might be effective at work doesn’t mean that they will not bring harm to their family/friends etc.