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Why the Government is facing the ultimate ‘trolley dilemma’

The “trolley dilemma” is simple enough. You are standing beside a railway track where a runaway rail carriage (trolley) is hurtling towards five oblivious workers at such a rate that nothing can stop it.

Next to you is a lever that would send the carriage down a side track where just one heedless man is standing.

What do you do? Pull the lever and save five people but kill one? Or do nothing and let nature to take its course, allowing you to argue you had no direct involvement in multiple deaths.

The head-scratching thought experiment was devised by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and is often used to judge a person’s moral compass.

Most people, if asked, would pull the lever, yet when the scenario involves pushing a man off a footbridge to stop the train, few will do it. 

This is the very problem that the Government is now facing with coronavirus

Should it flick the lever and protect the masses, who are arguably not at great risk from the disease, or impose a devastating lockdown that protects our old, elderly and vulnerable yet may cause irreparable harm to everyone else?

Paradoxically, doing nothing to hinder the runaway train of disease may have the least impact on Britain.

While it is abhorrent to suggest that we should let the virus run rampant through the sick and the old, there is a very real danger that saving the few could harm the many.

We know that the majority of people who become infected will have a very mild case. Many will not even realise they have it at all, which is one of the reasons it is so infectious, as seemingly healthy people continue to go about their daily lives oblivious to the fact they could be spreading it to others.

But if, by bringing the country to a standstill, we end up in a situation where people can no longer afford to eat – or  supply chains are so badly damaged that there is no food on the shelves even for those with money – can that be considered morally right either?

Will stopping cancer operations and sending sick people home from hospital before they are healed not simply store up a new wave of deaths down the line?

The death rate from coronavirus is hovering around one per cent. If that holds true in Britain, and the worst-case scenario of 80 per cent infection is met, an estimated half a million people will die. 

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