When the Arrow Came before the Trolley: Jewish
Aspects of the Trolley Problem
Tsurie l Rashi
Received: 4 January 2016 /Revised: 16 September 2017 / Accepted: 28 September 2017 /
Published online: 27 October 2017
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017
Abstract In 2014 Bruers and Breckman addressed a series of subsidiary questions
arising from the trolley problem and their answers. In this article I describe ancient and
precedent treatments of some of these issues over thousands of years as found in Jewish
literature and the original solutions that have been proposed throughout history by
Jewish philosophers and legal scholars. I address questions that have been posed to
Jewish halakhic authorities when two obligations clash — whether one may save the
lives of many at the cost of killing an individual — and discuss whether this is
permitted in order to save lives or forbidden owing to the prohibition of murder. I also
present new problems that have been introduced into the halakhic and philosophical
discussions around the trolley problem in Jewish literature.
Keywords Trolley problem
1 The Historic Argument
The trolley problem involves of a series of moral dilemmas centered on a runaway
trolley that is threatening the lives of a certain number of people. The basic structure of
all the dilemmas is the same: if one does not act, five people will die; if one does act
one other person will die and the five will be saved.
According to Bruers and
Braeckman (2014) the trolley dilemma was first posed by Foot in1967 and then again
by Thomson in 1976, but sophisticated discussions of various aspects of the problem
can be found in Jewish literature. It was articulated for the first time in the Bible in its
basic form and appears explicitly and clearly throughout Jewish literature.
Philosophia (2018) 46:193–206
For historic background on the trolley dilemma see: Edmond 2013.
* Tsuriel Rashi
The Jerusalem Center for Ethics, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, ISRAEL School of
Communication, Bar-Ilan University, 52900 Ramat Gan, Israel