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I was recently reading about the Trolley Problem

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

I could imagine one could come up with all sorts of similar cases (e.g. shooting down a hijacked plane is one variation I could think of).

My question is: what would Judaism say in such cases?

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    There's a JLI class that deals with this issue. I think it's this one: vimeo.com/7723694 and I once heard a recording of the class, I think it was here: torahlp.com/audio.htm?JLI-Talmudic-Ethics-33 - It is connected to the Rambam mentioned in the second half of this answer: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/8787/… – Menachem Sep 16 '11 at 1:41
  • @Menachem. Maybe you should copy/paste that answer here. Or perhaps call this one a duplicate? – HodofHod Sep 16 '11 at 2:27
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    @HodofHod: It isn't an exact duplicate, and this question touches an aspect covered in that question from a different angle. Also, that JLI class explicitly discusses the Trolley Problem, and I don't remember all the details. – Menachem Sep 16 '11 at 3:08
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    Throwing the switch is indirect; shooting down a plane is direct. I would expect the answers to be different. – Monica Cellio Sep 16 '11 at 3:34
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    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/3646/… – Ariel K Sep 16 '11 at 4:31
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Rambam Yesode HaTorah 5:5

"If gentiles tell [a group of] women: "Give us one of you to defile. If not, we will defile all of you," they should allow themselves all to be defiled rather than give over a single Jewish soul to [the gentiles].

Similarly, if gentiles told [a group of Jews]: "Give us one of you to kill. If not, we will kill all of you," they should allow themselves all to be killed rather than give over a single soul to [the gentiles].

However, if [the gentiles] single out [a specific individual] and say: "Give us so and so or we will kill all of you," [different rules apply]: If the person is obligated to die like Sheva ben Bichri, they may give him over to them. Initially, however, this instruction is not conveyed to them. If he is not obligated to die, they should allow themselves all to be killed rather than give over a single soul to [the gentiles]."

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I think the general view is that is forbidden to flip a switch to cause the death of 1 person to prevent 5 other people from dying. Judaism does not just take the utilitarian view to just look at the ends and ignore the means involved, especially when dealing with committing a sin such as murder. (See Does the end justify the means.) Therefore it would be better to "shev v'al ta'aseh" rather than commit an act of murder. After all "mai chazis" that the 5 people's lives are more valuable than the one person's life? (See Pesachim p. 25) You are not God to be able to make such judgements.

I think this would hold true even if it was only a case of grama and one would not be liable for the death penalty for killing the person. The accepted halacha holds that the 3 cardinal sins are "yehareg v'al ya'avor" even when they are just "abuzraya". Therefore even though one would only be committing an abuzraya of murder, it would still not be allowed.

The case in Yerushalmi and Tosefta on Terumah (which the Rambam in Yesodei haTorah is based on) are discussing a much more complicated case involving enemies and betrayal, uncertain results, and the death of the person in question either way. Therfore I do not know how easily it could be applied to this case.

As for a shooting down a hijacked plane, R' Bleich just published an article in Traditon on this topic which forbids it, which I'm sure quotes many more sources. His view is summarized by R' Broyde:

Rabbi Bleich's essay represents his view that the sanctity of innocent life - not in wartime - is very profound. Many other halachic authorities adopt the view that at least in wartime one certainly can kill innocent people to save the lives of the multitudes.

Unless one can somehow consider the entire plane to have a din of a rodef, it seems difficult that one can say we can directly go and kill everyone on the plane beforehand (although the fact that they will die soon anyways does make it different than the trolley case) . R' Broyde seems to say that different rules apply during war, but I would normally assume this applies to enemy civilians, not captives.

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You cannot decide which life is more valuable, even is it yours against other (like someone willing to give a vital organ for transplant).

in the train example I saw an answer that you should leave to shamaim, if you cannot stop the train and need to decide right or left, flip a coin. but as mentioned in the previous answer I guess it would be a case of sitting and doing nothing. maybe flipping a coin would be in a case that you need to decide.

  • If you're steering the train and must pick one path then obviously choose the path that kills less people since there's no shev v'al ta'aseh either way, you should try to minimize deaths. – Ariel K Sep 16 '11 at 15:32
  • @ArielK: But you're already on one path. If you shev v'al ta'aseh, that path you are on will kill people. you're only active option is to switch tracks. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railroad_switch – Menachem Sep 16 '11 at 16:16
  • If that's the case, I assume shev v'al ta'aseh would also apply. Unless somehow by steering the train the person is already involved in doing something so maybe it would make it less of an action to steer one way? – Ariel K Sep 16 '11 at 17:19
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    Whatever it is, flipping a coin is definitely the wrong thing to do and perhaps a violation of ' לא תנחשו ולא תעוננו '. – Ariel K Sep 16 '11 at 17:23
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There don't seem to be any classical Jewish texts that discuss a comparable scenario until the Rabbi Avraham Y. Karlitz (Chazon-Ish Yoreh De’ah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 69; Sanhedrin, Sec. 25) in the 20th century - who deliberates a case of “diverting the arrow” and even he was inconclusive. However, the Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer Responsa, Vol 15, Chap. 70) rules Shev V’al Ta’aseh - sit and don't do.

Source: Belfer, Israel. The Trolley Problem at a Crossroads: Halacha and NeuroEthics, JME Vol VIII no 2. October 2016, pp. 61-70.

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