Who Deserves to Die? The Children on Train Tracks Dilemma

An ethical dilemma involving children on train tracks.

In the unsettling 1982 film, Sophie's Choice, Meryl Streep's character is confronted with an impossible decision on the same night she's forced into a German Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz specifically. I won't spoil it for you here in case you haven't seen the movie (or read the William Styron novel it's based on), but suffice it to say that the choice she's forced to make destroys her emotionally and haunts her for the rest of her life.

The following brain teaser is not nearly as gut-wrenching as what Sophie had to go through, but, nonetheless, it's time to put on your thinking cap, while simultaneously looking deep into your soul. This twisted ethical conundrum has been doing the rounds on the Internet, and I'd like to open it up for discussion here. Take a look at the picture above, and consider the following facts:
  • There are two railroad tracks—one is known to be active and one is known to be not in use any longer.
  • Three kids are playing on the active track.
  • One kid is playing on the out-of-service track.
  • The three kids know that the active track is active and frequently in use, and the other kid knows that it is safer on the out-of-service track.
  • A train is suddenly speeding along on the active track.
  • All four kids get their feet stuck in their respective tracks and cannot escape.
  • There is a switch that is able to divert the train from the active track (with the three kids) to the out-of-service track (with the one kid).
And here, alas, is your ethical dilemma. You stumble across this scene and only have enough time to do one of two things:
  1. You can pull the switch, which moves the train from the active track to the out-of-service track, thereby saving the three kids on the active track and killing the one kid on the out-of-service track.

  2. Or you do nothing, and let the three kids on the active track die and the one kid on the out-of-service track live.
What would you do? And why? Put down your thoughts in the comments section below.

Update 03.11.17:

I'm still reading your interesting and varied comments all these years later. Thanks for participating and keeping the comments thread alive. If you're fascinated by tough hypothetical situations like the one above, you might check out Martin Cohen's 101 Ethical Dilemmas, which covers everything from overcrowded lifeboats on sinking ships (think Titanic) to movie sex to war. Also consider Of Course!: The Greatest Collection of Riddles & Brain Teasers For Expanding Your Mind.

And if you think kids playing on train tracks is something that exists only in hypothetical situations, think again. There are videos on YouTube that show you just how reckless some children can be. This short clip may be NSFW because the train operator swears—for obvious reasons. Watch:

But, hey, kids aren't the only ones making questionable decisions. Apparently, taking photos on train tracks is all the rage nowadays. Sometimes you get some cool shots. Sometimes the price is death. Watch:

[Source: Amazing Posts.]

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  1. do NOTHING. Those little brats playing on the active track deserve to die. ha ha

  2. I'd pull up on the 3 kids on the active track in my molester van, lodging myself between the train and kids. I'd open the door and offer them candy. Since they are from a first world country and conditioned to flee when approached by folks in vans promising sweet treats, they would run away. I, not wanting to be crushed by a train in a molester van, would follow them in hot pursuit, praying to whatever deity will listen that the train's emergency break system and the physical resistance caused from the impact with my dodgy looking van will be enough so we can all get to safety. When local news outlets catch wind of the story, their reporters will be perplexed as to whether I am a hero or a pervert. I'd tell them I was neither and head home to file an insurance claim for my totaled van.

  3. I, too, would do nothing. Without knowing the circumstances of these children, I think it's presumptuous of me to "play god" and decide that 3 lives is better than 1. That's not the best way to decide which group to save.

    So, I leave it up to fate.

    'Cause if Final Destination has showed anything, it's that death will always find you and you can't avoid it, children.

  4. So, would it be reverse Darwinism to pull the switch?

    Ever see that movie Idiocracy? If you did you probably lost some brain cells.

    And the kid on the other safe track...is his foot stuck, or would he be able to jump out of the way?

    What is he doing anyway, watching these three struggle as the train approaches?

  5. that's a toughie but I go with do nothing. Those dumb kids should know better. spare the smart one.

    Is there a "right" answer according to ethicists or the "rules" of ethics?

  6. gosh ,your readers are more twisted than mine!

  7. Let the kids die. I hate kids.

    The less of them in this world, the happier I am.


  8. Wow, these are some serious answers! FTR, and not being creative at all, I would divert the track and kill one kid instead of three. He may have been somewhat smarter to choose the inactive track, but anyone familiar with Hollywood movies knows that playing on train tracks of ANY kind is risky and should act accordingly. (Unless the kid was basing his or her decision on Hancock, where the track-sitter gets rescued, in which case he probably WANTS to die for having endured the dreadful Will Smith experience).

  9. I can only afford to defend myself against one wrongful death lawsuit. Not three. So I go for the one kid.

    More seriously, I don't think you can make a moral decision based on what track the kids are playing on. The kid on the inactive track may be a little bit brighter (or he may just be better disciplined) than the three on the active track but he could also be a sociopath. Smarter does not equally more valuable, or more moral. Assigning a greater value to the one life against the three other lives based on a presumed greater intelligence gives way too much weight on the active/inactive track decision. They're all children, and this one moment of poor judgment is no real indicator of their potential in later life.

    The only value upon which you can make a judgment here is the amount of children in life threatening danger. It's simply numbers. So I go for the one kid.

  10. II think the point of this is for you to think about your Morals and a big part of morals is that they should be logical, So to say about lawsuits and kill them all cause you dont like them is more retarded they the kids on the track.... they are all kids they dont have the since of reasoning and ether choice would change me for life but I could not take the life of a child that has made the smarter of the two choices even if it was to safe three kids, for more than my life but the amount of pain and guilt that the three kids would have to know that if it was not for their dumb choices that they made the other kids would not be dead... Its cold no matter which way you spin it but i would have to say I would try like hell to stop the train by i would stay on the same track.. And also as far as any lawsuits the kids on the active tack makes it an accident, But if you move to and track that is suppose to be inactive and a child dies then you are at fault (even if it is to save three kids) how would you even explain that to the one kids mother? what would you say "I know your child was playing on the safe track, BUT their was more of them so I decided for myself that kids in numbers are more important then your child so I choose to move to the track with your child on it, SORRY" I dont think that is right and I would lose my mind if that one child was mine..

  11. What I would do is turn on the emergency stop lights for the coming conductor to see, in turn he would put emergency breaks on, at that same time I would divert the train to the unused tracks, and seeing how the one child is somewhat further away, maybe it will stop in time, but just in case it won't, I have put a deterrent in the way-my vehicle, a 2 ton Chevy truck, then I would try my best to get the kid out of harms way hopefully in the Knick of time because otherwise we are both dead because I would be staying there helping the young child till the very end-be it the greatest value or a good value-one where I'm dead and won't have to face any family or criminal charges-I WOULD JUST BE THEHERO THAT TRIED EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO THE END RESULT.
    That's what K. Carter would do!!!

  12. If I were to be a person passing by or witnessing this event I have no idea what I actually would do because in traumatic situations we all react differently then even they thought they would. I do know what I hope I would be able to do and that would be to gather myself together to save lives. First never would I judge children for making a not so wise choice and just leave them there, Kids will be kids & I know at one time or another each of us have made unsafe,illogical,choices as kids.
    I would first park my vehicle across the track to help the conductor see there's an issue as well as turning on the stop emergency signal or calling 911 to make contact with the train conductor.
    I'd then quickly assess the situation of the children to see how stuck each of them are and perhaps get the ones off the track that are easily removable from tracks and use them as help in working on the remaining children.
    I hope with as much contact measures that have been put into action the train gets the message and stops.
    If in fact it came down to having to leave any child behind, I simply could not and would not do that. I'm a mother myself & if my child was one that was stuck I'd hope the person trying to help would do the same. No one should have to die alone, scared, & especially innocent children.
    Shantel D. Flatten

  13. Anonymous5/31/2016

    People like the ones above are what make this world a sick place to live in in this day and age!! WOW, I have never seen so much IDIOCY in one place in my life!! This, number one is a made up story and the chances of it really happening are slim to none, however, to even say some of the things said above is downright immoral and disgusting!! I am truly thankful that I am not the one in the end who has to judge all on earth and all of you should be thankful too, and ashamed of yourselves!!!
    The subject here speaks of CHILDREN, innocent lives who know a little bit about right from wrong but not enough yet to make sound decisions, and for the ignorant person above who said let them all die I hate kids anyway, why was that not you playing on the track as a child? That would be one less idiot left in this world.
    What would I do? I am not sure because as mentioned above in the moment it is hard to tell. How much time do I have until the train makes contact? How stuck are the children? Can I pull them out of their shoes fast enough to at least throw them out of the way? I have lived 38 years and loved every minute of it. My children are old enough to fend for themselves now so I would definitely try to save the kids, even if that means imminent death for me. These children still have a lot of life ahead of them. So, MY MORAL of the story would be what I would hope most adults would do, try my damnedest to save these kids even if that means meeting my savior a lot sooner!!
    May God Bless all of you reading this and if you are one of the idiots who made one of the disgusting comments above, I pray for you that the Lord will forgive you and open your eyes and heart to unconditional love and acceptance so that you nay feel inner peace and tranquility!

  14. Anonymous6/01/2016

    Hello everyone my name is Lucy If I was in that predicament I would do nothing and let the three kids on the active track die and the one kid on the out of service track live because the three kids on the active track knows that the track is active and the one kid on the non active track knows that's the safest side to be on. I cant see myself pulling a switch on someone that's on the right side of the track.

  15. Anonymous6/02/2016

    I spend all the time I would have had to react to the situation overthinking it, my overwhelming sense of self preservation kicks in and I do nothing. I live because of indecision (and my sense of self preservation), but the three kids die.

  16. It's sad, but I would do absolutely nothing even if I have to live with the death of those three kids the rest of my life. They were playing on the active track knowingly and the one kid was doing the right thing by playing on the safe/unused track therefore the one kid doesn't deserve to die, because the other 3 kids were wrong to play on the active track and they knew it they were but still chose to do so.

  17. This is a tough decision however, my decision would be to save the majority. I would hit the switch. I honestly think that most people would do the same thing. I would have to sacrifice one out of four.

  18. Shun Hagins9/28/2016

    I would do nothing. First you do not what the three kids are capable of. Second it could be a set up to be robbed The Tracks is what we called them where I'm from. The tracks has lots of resources like the box cars that carried food and supply's for grocery stores . I can remember when the blue an white Michael Jordans came out an one box car had a shipment of them. The box car was broken into. The new shoes where found all over the city. The box cars carried guns,beer, clothes u had tobe very careful around the tracks the riders/ People who lived on the tracks killed,raped ect. So I say just mind your buisness stay safe and leave them kids alone.

  19. karen carrizales9/30/2016

    This is a very tough decision and heartbreaking for me, but I would save the three children on the active track. So yes I would pull the switch to change the tracks. I feel like it's better to save three rather than one. The simple fact that they are all in the wrong is beside the fact of saving any lives if at all possible.

  20. I would save the three kids. The one kid is not stuck so he or she has a chance to get off the tracks in time. That way you can save all four. Sometimes you have to be more logical and think. There is a possiblity the other kid on the out of service could have a chance. But if it was possible I would try to save both. No one deserves to die.

  21. I would try and pull the 3 kids off the track and do nothing with the switch

  22. One more consideration no one seems to have mentioned. Why is that section of track closed? Perhaps it ends suddenly and by diverting the train you will send everyone on it to their death?

  23. Anonymous2/07/2017

    All kids can be saved, if the kid on the out of service track is watching and see the train approaching, it's likely that he/she will remove them self from the track. I would save the three that are stuck and yell to the other kid to move and hopefully there will be no casualties.

  24. jammie2/08/2017

    Wow reading some of these comments people are sick and I pray you have no children.Now as for me, I would blow the horn to let the other child see that the train is switching tracks and hit the emergency brakes in case the other track that is out of order does not cause harm to any on. That way all 4 kids still get to play no families have to mourn over any losses