The trolley problem is a staple of discussions about ethics. The basic version is very simple: a trolley is barreling down a track toward a group of five people who remain blissfully unaware of their impending doom. You stand next to a switch that could redirect the trolley to another track, where it will kill a smaller number of people. Do you throw the switch?
Most people take a very utilitarian view of things and say they’d throw the switch. But there are plenty of variations on the trolley problem that suggest there’s more than pure utilitarianism involved in the decision-making. Changing the number of people on the alternate track or changing how directly involved you have to be in killing someone will both shift the frequency of different answers—at least in industrialized societies.
Documentation of the response to the trolley problem in other cultures has been relatively spotty, raising the question of whether we can reveal any ethical universals using it. So an enormous team of researchers decided to find out, surveying over 27,000 people in 45 countries. Although the work didn’t exactly go as planned, it did provide a hint of at least one ethical tendency that’s pretty universal across cultures.
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