The Trolley Problem in popular culture: Torchwood Series 3

by botogol2 min read27th Jul 200987 comments


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It's just possible that some lesswrong readers may be unfamiliar with Torchwood: It's a British sci-fi TV series, a spin-off from the more famous, and very long-running cult show Dr Who.

Two weeks ago Torchwood Series 3 aired. It took the form of a single story arc, over five days, shown in five parts on consecutive nights. What hopefully makes it interesting to rationalist lesswrong readers who are not (yet) Whovians was not only the space monsters (1) but also the show's determined and methodical exploration of an iterated Trolley Problem:  in a process familiar to seasoned thought-experimenters the characters were tested with a dilemma followed by a succession of variations of increasing complexity, with their choices ascertained and the implications discussed and reckoned with.

An hypothetical, iterated rationalist dilemma... with space monsters... and monsters a great deal more scary - and messier - than Omega -  what's not to like?

So, on the off chance that you missed it, and as a summer diversion from more academic lesswrong fare, I thought a brief description of how a familiar dilemma was handled on popular British TV this month, might be of passing interest (warning: spoilers follow)

The details of the scenario need not concern us too much here (and readers are warned not too expend too much mental energy exploring the various implausibilities, for want of distraction) but suffice to say that the 456, a race of evil aliens, landed on Earth and demanded that a certain number of children be turned over to them to suffer a horrible fate-worse-than-death or else we face the familiar prospects of all out attack and the likely destruction of mankind.

Resistance, it almost goes without saying, was futile.

The problems faced by the team could be roughly sorted into some themes

The Numbers dilemma - is it worth sacrificing any amount of children to save the rest?

  • first (2) the 456 demand just 35 children
  • but later they demand 10% of the child population.

The Quality dilemma: does it make any difference which children?

  • what if, say, the sacrificed children are solely those whom nobody will miss?

The choice dilemma: how should the sacrifical cohort be chosen?

  • are there any criteria that are fairer, or more rational, than the obvious lottery?
  • other than 'fairness' what other criteria can you think of for selecting the victims?

The limits of human rationality: are there certain 'rational' decisions that are simply too much to expect a human being to be able to make?

  • what if it is your own children? Grand-children? Nephews? Neighbours? 

Actually despite my jocular tone in the first paragraph I don't want to make too light of this series, as it was disturbing viewing.

Anyway: that being said: rationalist lesswrong community members may want to think dispassionately about the their answers before I reveal the conclusions that Russell T Davies (the writer) came to:


  • Lesswrongers will be encouraged to learn that the Torchwood characters were rationalists to a man and woman - there was little hesitation in agreeing to the 456's demands.
  • A rational attempt to negotiate (600 children were offered) was faced down by the 465's intemperate release of swine flu into the negotiating chamber.


  • In the Torchwood universe it made a great deal of difference which children - or units as they were plausibly referred to - were sacrificed, with governments paying attention to round up the orphans, the refugees and the unloved - for the unexpectedly rational reason of minimising the suffering of the survivors.


This was handled by the politicians who considered two dimensions in the selection:

    • the Darwinian dimension: could they improve the human gene pool by sacrificing the least desirable 10%?  If this seemed like a good rationalist plan (it did) then how could they quickly identify the losers? Answer: in a UK-centric political twist they chose those attending the schools with the poorest exam results.
    • the question of practicality and enforcabilty. This was the consideration that caused the children of decision-makers and enforcers to be spared. In a cute nested trolley problem the children of the soldiers were saved in order to ensure the cooperation of their parents in rounding up the unlucky and underserving, in order to ensure the survival of the rest.
    • at no stage was it necessary to push a fat man off a bridge

Rationality at the limit

On the question of 'how close' a straightforward evolutionary approach was used. Children of the decision-makers were safe, and grandchildren.

"And our nephews?" "Don't push it".

But the limits of rationality, it seems, are dependent upon gender: While it was recognised that no woman could be expected to agree to the rational sacrifice of her child, it was expected by some that men might have to, and in the end the main character - male - sacrificed a grandchild.

And that's it. Perhaps not a complete disposal of the trolley problem, but nevertheless an interesting excursion into the realms of philosphical dilemmas for a popular drama.   Rationalism is a meme - pass it on.

(1) like many TV aliens: surprisingly able to construct spaceships without the benefit of an opposable thumb
(2) Yes, that was actually the 1965 back-story.
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