A Derailment: The Issue With the Trolley Problem and the Incomplete and Dubious “Morality” of The Last of Us

The “Trolley Problem” is a series of thought experiments used in ethics and philosophy that boil down to the moral conundrum of sacrificing one or many people. While there are variants involving different parameters, the most common version presents as such: a train is barreling down a track toward five people tied down to the track. On a connected track is another solitary person tied down as well. You are at the switch to change the train’s direction. You can shift the train to go toward the single person if you choose. What do you do?

The basic moral quandary that is asked in the “Trolley Problem” is what are you willing to sacrifice and to what ends. The question becomes an examination of the individual’s responsibility and own ethical framework. Is one life worth five? Should one be sacrificed for more? What obligation does the person at the track have to act? Or do they even have to act? The “Trolley Problem” is an interesting thought experiment and conversation over drinks but ultimately is an entirely useless method of truly discovering or defining morality in practical application. Why? Because the moment the ‘thought experiment’ is taking further than the basics or a single variable is added, even the most devout Utilitarian begins to add caveats. Unfortunately, it has become the go to method or framework for most video games and media.


The final act of the both the video game and television series, The Last of Us, has Joel killing rooms full of people in order to save Ellie, his newly adopted daughter, from certain death. The moral dilemma comes into play through the Fireflies assertion that they can create a vaccine from fluid in Ellie’s brain that can stop the spread of the infection at the cost of her life. In essence, the game and television show present the “Trolley Problem” with Joel deciding the one over the many. As one would imagine, like with all things, this had restarted/reintroduced ‘discourse’ of the morality of Joel’s choice and whether or not he is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. As expected, it is droll, dumb, and nearly every party speaking is wrong.

On one hand, the position is that Joel is in the right because he acted to save Ellie’s life against the machinations of the Fireflies. On the other hand, the argument is that Joel’s decision has doomed humanity and society at large, so he is in the wrong. First off, both of these arguments are bad, but between them the worst one is definitely the latter. There is a rather fucked up notion in Western society that the collective supersedes the individual, and that a person should be honored with sacrificing themselves to keep the status quo and the collective moving forward. This is the basic premise of the argument of why Ellie should be sacrificed to ‘save humanity’ except that it is bullshit.

Not just the initial premise of the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” belief, but the actual situation presented in both the game and the series. In the show, we see in the earlier episodes how for decades there were people who studied fungi and the specific scenario of human takeover by certain fungus. With unimagined resources, people, time, etc., the best option the best minds could come up with was “we’re fucked, burn and bomb it all. Hope for the best after.” The resources available for the Fireflies is a dilapidated lab with inconsistent power and a few doctors/scientists working off the random idea of one dude who is not even an expert in the fields that would be required to be knowledgeable in to extract the necessary samples to make a vaccine. In a real world comparison, it took the world billions of dollars and thousands of dedicated hours to make a vaccine for Covid that is not a hundred percent and requires boosters for an ever evolving virus. The Fireflies do not have a fraction of a fraction of the resources that it took to do that.

For the sake of argument, let’s go with the idea that killing the only known immune person/sample and making a vaccine actually works. How many actual doses can be made? Does the vaccine allow for continued immunity or even for a newly vaccinated person’s blood or cells to offer some immunity as well? Again, let’s say that somehow the Fireflies have the resources to continue to make a vaccine off the limited sample they get from Ellie, what about distribution? Because that has to happen unless the Fireflies are only going to “cure” their own people. So, how will that work? The terrorist organization that has spent years attacking the last remnants of the federal government are just going to show up to quarantine zones saying they have a cure and are not just going to be shot immediately in the head? Or what about all the splinter groups with their own governments and leaders? Hell, what about people outside the USA? Will foreign governments or groups be willing to work with terrorists cells?

Now, let’s ignore all that and say that the Fireflies actually do have some form of plan to make that work. What is actually happening? Because the proposed vaccine is not actually a cure. It will not reverse the process in people. It will not act as a bioweapon against the cordyceps. It really will not do anything but ensure that if you are bitten by an infected, you won’t become infected…probably. Because, again, there is no testing being done and the only known immune person is now dead. So, the Fireflies are murdering a child in the vain hope that everything will remain the exact same as it is, but there is a better chance of not becoming a mushroom zombie. Granted, those monsters can, and will, very much kill you, especially since they can no longer infect you, but you won’t become them after you die. Yeah…?!

Because that is the actuality of what is being promised. Not a return to normalcy. Not a path to improvement. Not a method or call of hope to unify and move forward. Just a slightly better chance that your body won’t be resurrected after death or infection. That is what the Fireflies wanted to kill a child for. As to the argument against Joel’s actions, he didn’t really have much of a choice. The Fireflies are terroristic zealots who were willing to kill a child under false pretenses, so probably not the most well adjusted people. If anything considering the events of the sequel, Joel was too lenient as there were still existing Fireflies who went after him and Ellie. In order to fully ensure his and Ellie’s safety, he should have killed more of them.

There is also some other options presented like Ellie should have been given a choice in the matter or that Joel should simply have not lied to Ellie about the events that transpired. As to the former, if you’re ethical framework has the more moral choice being putting the weight of the world on a traumatized and mentally and emotionally unstable child, you don’t have morals. You have a shitty YA novel. No more needs to be said on that. As to the latter, no. See reasons for former argument above. You don’t fuck up children just to make yourself feel better or righteous. Parents, actually good parents at least, put as much of the burden as they can on themselves to protect their children. If you cannot understand that, you really should not be having an opinion on morality.

This is the ACTUAL moral choice in the show and game, but ya’ll not ready for that conversation…

Oddly, both the video game and television show have shown an actual, viable, and moral third option; one that no one has seemed to discuss at length. It is accepting the world as it is and doing your best moving forward as exhibited by Bill and Tommy. They worked hard to carve out a place for themselves and made connections with a few they trusted. Obviously, Bill did so with only one person, and a few others on the outskirts, but even then, he did what he could or needed to to survive. Tommy let go of his past and built a new life of community and understanding that life is messy and while you should do your best to live a simple life of reduced harm and communal growth and living, there is still a place for and necessity of violence to keep people safe and living. They even discuss it during the episode of how sometimes just the reputation of being bad is enough to protect them, but when it isn’t, they will do what they have to. They are not actively looking to harm or control anyone, but absolutely will if someone tries to do so to them. That is the moral choice in the apocalypse. There is no going back. Only forward. It is not glamourous or heroic or noble. There are no simple solutions. All there is is work, effort, making difficult but necessary choices, and just living as best and as much as you can.

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