Scylla or Charybdis? The Homeric Trolley Problem

The recent publication of two new books on ethics have got me thinking about one of my favorite Homeric stories. David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man? (Princeton) and Thomas Cathcart’s The Trolley Problem (Workman) each deal with an ethical riddle that the  New York Times succinctly describe thus:

You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley hurtling toward them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five — but killing another person, who is tied to that spur. What do you do? Most people say they would pull the lever: Better that one person should die instead of five.

The “trolley problem” was first articulated by Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, although she didn’t explain why the people in her theoretical world should be so cavalierly loitering around train-yards with runaway trolleys.

But, in any event, what should you do in this predicament?  The dilemma seems simple at first, but grows in complexity upon reflection.  If you throw the switch, one person will die; if you don’t throw the switch, five will.  As a strictly utilitarian matter, clearly it worse that five people should die instead of one, so you ought to throw the switch.  And yet, if you throw the switch you are certainly complicit in that individual’s death, whereas were you to do nothing, it would be an accident if the five were killed.  Deliberately arranging for an innocent person’s death is obviously worse than not doing so, and hence you ought not to throw the switch.

What to do?  Since its original publication, the trolley problem has been fitted out with different variations for the purpose of highlighting other ethical issues implicit in the original dilemma:  What if, instead of throwing the switch, all you could do was to push somebody on to the track to stop the trolley?  What if it were  … your mom!?

You can see how all of these arguments might run but, at its heart, the trolley problem comes down to a numbers game balanced against the guilt associated with intentionally taking a life.  A utilitarian argument depends upon a simple consideration of the number of lives saved.  The opposite position puts more of a premium on the moral agency of the one who intentionally though unwillingly takes a human life.

There is, as I said at the start, a comparable situation in Homer. In Book Twelve of the Odyssey, the witch-goddess Circe is giving the hero explicit directions on how to get home.  There are many dangers to be avoided, to be sure, and among these are the monsters living on either side of a strait his ship must pass through, Scylla and Charybdis.  The former, horrible to look upon, is described as follows in Ian Johnston’s on-line translation:

                                        She has a dozen feet,
all deformed, six enormously long necks,                           110
with a horrific head on each of them,
and three rows of teeth packed close together,
full of murky death.  Her lower body
she keeps out of sight in her hollow cave,
but sticks her heads outside the fearful hole,
and fishes there, scouring around the rock
… No sailors                           120
can yet boast they and their ship sailed past her
without getting hurt.  Each of Scylla’s heads
carries off a man, snatching him away
right off the dark-prowed ship.

So, Scylla with her six heads is on one side, ready to attack.  What about the opposite side of the strait?

                                                Then, Odysseus,
you’ll see the other cliff.  It’s not so high.
The two are close together.  You could shoot
an arrow from one cliff and hit the other.
There’s a huge fig tree there with leaves in bloom.
Just below that tree divine Charybdis
sucks black water down.  She spews it out                        130
three times a day, and then three times a day
she gulps it down—a terrifying sight.
May you never meet her when she swallows!
Nothing can save you from destruction then,
not even Poseidon, Shaker of the Earth.

Make no mistake, Charybdis is even worse than Scylla, and she will destroy the ship and everybody on board if she can.  While he is contemplating these unpleasant options, Circe offers Odysseus an ancient version of the trolley problem:

Make sure your ship stays close to Scylla’s rock.
Row past there quickly. It’s much better
to mourn for six companions in your ship
that have all of them wiped out together.

It’s interesting to think that this goddess, who is endowed with magical transformative powers (she had turned Odysseus’ men into pigs a book earlier!) is here making a strictly utilitarian argument.  One can even picture the syllogism:

  • It is better that fewer people should die
  • Fewer people will die by sailing alongside Scylla
  • Therefore it is better to sail alongside Scylla

Q.E.D.!  Yet Odysseus is not convinced.   When it comes time in fact to make the treacherous passage, the hero orders his helmsman to hug the cliff of the strait in the hopes that they can find some way to maneuver between the two monsters. With his hand on his sword, Odysseus keeps a sharp eye out for Charybdis, but in vain.

Then Scylla snatched away
six of my companions, right from the ship,
the strongest and the bravest men I had.
When I turned to watch the swift ship and crew,
already I could see their hands and feet,
as Scylla carried them high overhead.
They cried out and screamed, calling me by name
one final time, their hearts in agony.  …

Of all things my eyes have witnessed in my journeying
on pathways of the sea, the sight of them
was the most piteous I’ve ever seen.

Many were the things Odysseus saw, we read in the first lines of the epic.  And yet the sight of his six men snatched up by Scylla was in Odysseus’ eyes οἴκτιστος, “eliciting the greatest pity,” as Homer famously states.  But why should this have caused him the most sorrow?  An equal number of Odysseus’ men were eaten by Polyphemus as he watched, and many more were killed when the Laestrygonians trapped eleven of his ships in a harbor and picked off like fish in a barrel.  And that’s not even to mention the decade-long war of Troy, with its thousands of grim battlefield deaths.

To my mind, the answer lies somewhere between the utilitarian construction of the trolley problem and its counterargument.  Odysseus could not bring himself to accept the cold logic of Circe’s recommendation to sail alongside Scylla, thereby condemning six of his men to death.  He can comfort himself with the knowledge that he did not follow her advice and so is not responsible for the deaths of the six men.  So, the switch has been thrown in the train-yard, the trolley has run over fewer rather than more, and–according to a utilitarian argument–maximum happiness has been achieved.  Homer, however, imagines the human cost of such a decision.

The Scylla Emblem, ancient silver piece from Morgantina, Sicily. See:

The Scylla Emblem, an ancient silver piece from Morgantina, Sicily. For more, see

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Mythology, Nautical, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Scylla or Charybdis? The Homeric Trolley Problem

  1. Chris H says:

    My sixth graders and I had the same conversation when we read the Odyssey. Those kids had a very similar discussion

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