Behold the Trolley Problem.
A runaway tram is hurtling non-stop towards five workers. You, the lone operator next to the switch, have a choice: either pull the lever to divert the trolley onto another track, killing one man in the road, or do nothing. Which do you choose?
Moral philosopher Philippa Foot gave light to this alarming thought experiment in an attempt to make sense of morality and ethics. Macabre, ridiculous, and weirdly irresistible, this imaginary scenario has profoundly shaped our understanding of right and wrong. For the past several decades it has occupied the attention of brilliant minds, from academic ethicists to moral psychologists - even to engineers. It has helped them try to answer the most difficult questions of all —how do we act, and how should we?
This hypothetical dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of any given action, and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome. Since its conception, it’s proven itself to be a fascinating tool to probe into human moral intuitions, and as such is often applied to polemical topics such as abortion, war, drone usage, and euthanasia. (Also - it played a huge role in that kickass episode of The Good Place.)
But what if we were to apply this metric of moral thinking to smaller scale, everyday issues? And for argument’s sake - and for this article’s sake, in actual fact - I’m going to refer out to fitness goals. Weight loss. Daily actions and habits. Choices.
Our choices indirectly make up who we are as people, whether we like it or not. We can choose to take a little bit out of our day to make our friends, family or significant other special and valued. We can choose to buy the homeless man whom we pass in the streets everyday to work a sandwich every so often. We can choose not to condone or support the actions of those who do wrong to others. In short, our choices can prove to be a pretty big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Choices, therefore, can dictate whether or not we achieve our goals based on where we want to be in life. Existentialist philosophers once called this the ‘cross roads’ that we as mere human mortals must face - almost constantly, in fact - the burden of choosing one experience at the expense of sacrificing another, with potential regret being a consequence. We see this existential anxiety play out pretty brutally in the trolley problem, as you, the poor bystander, must choose whether to end the lives of one or several people. Whether we like it or not, the choice we make sets the path for our future behaviour and existence.
Thankfully when it comes to training and nutrition, the most intense level of suffering we are likely to come across is perhaps a tummy rumble from eating fewer calories, or sore muscles from practicing lat pulldowns for the very first time. Truly terrifying.
Nonetheless, the trolley problem - that is, making a choice which forces us to think about the consequences of our actions - is very much applicable to exploring our goal setting and achieving our fitness targets.
Let’s temporarily replace the trolley with a weekly calorie target. You have two choices in the path before you. Either you drive your ‘target trolley’ down the road of a numerically-based restriction stricter paradigm, eating very little in the week with the intention of indulging in Medieval-worthy banquets on your Saturday night; or, if you struggle with calorie counting, you pick the path of prioritising voluminous foods in lieu of your daily Honest Burger, guaranteeing an effortless deficit without the tracking - but potentially eschewing the foods you enjoy on a daily basis. Both potentially tricky options, but say these are two tools you’ve narrowed down that you think might benefit your lifestyle and help you reach your goals. How can we figure out which one is best?
This is a crude depiction of the original intention of the hypothetical problem. But the allegory still stands, in my view. The Trolley Problem is notorious for frustrating the many with the discourse it provokes - there is no definitive solution which applies universally. Similarly, for our training routine and nutrition approach, there is no ‘perfect’ answer.
Like most philosophical problems, the trolley problem is not designed to have a solution. It is, instead, intended to invoke thought, and create a debate in which the difficulty of resolving moral dilemmas is recognised, and our limitations as moral agents are acknowledged. The ongoing discussion over the trolley problem is not a dialogue about solutions per se – after all, in both scenarios of the dilemma, there are only two ways in which a person could behave – but one that places its emphasis on reasons. This is not to say, however, that every opinion on the trolley problem is perfectly legitimate; nor should they be accepted without talking about our reasoning behind each statement. We can and should acknowledge that there are more or less justifiable resolutions to the scenario. Only through reason and rational examination can we focus on them.
The same applies to the Fitness Problem. There is no one solution or perfect answer - but we can certainly discern between the sustainable and sound, and the ludicrous and irrational. A modest calorie deficit, taking the stairs and walking a couple bus stops early, and resistance training three times a week is the more modest, unsexy option in comparison to a programme consisting of 2-hour daily sessions and subsisting solely on sweet potato, oats and tuna. Both clearly promise the result of an energy deficit, and therefore getting leaner. But it is evident which of the two offers us rationale and sustainability. Though technically, the second option ‘works’, it may not actually be the most logical - or enjoyable - route to helping us achieve our goals.
This article isn’t to get you comparing killing people on a tram with designing your own fitness programme, (although some professionals in the industry may attempt to converge the two) but getting you to think about the rationality and logic behind a desired outcomes - and the actions required to achieve it. Our choices help us get closer or further away from where we want to be - ultimately, we decide that - but we can also decide which choices to take, and why we want to undertake them in the first place. The trolley problem may not be a literal scenario, but it can definitely give us the thinking skills to figure out how we want to act in life - and what goals we want to pursue, and why.