History’s Trolley Problem

Should history be taught on big scales, ranging over millions or even billions of years, or should it focus on the experiences of small groups or even individuals over centuries, or even minutes? This question might be seen as one of history education’s most important trolley problems. Trolley problems highlight how uncomfortable we can be in making ethical decisions that prioritise groups over individuals. In this blog I will show that histories are never written just on one scale, and that using a range of scales in our teaching can help our students to better grapple with the ethics of history.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-17580
Language: English


Should history be taught on big scales, ranging over millions or even billions of years, or should it focus on the experiences of small groups or even individuals over centuries, or even minutes? This is one of the most important questions we can ask about history education, and to my mind we have not discussed it enough.

What is the History Trolley Problem

Answering this question is not just a matter of thinking about how much teaching time has been allocated, the developmental stages of the students, the availability of teaching resources, curriculum frameworks and community expectations, although these things matter. I also think it is an important ethical question, and one that we need to bring into sharper focus with our students, colleagues, and the wider community.

To explain this point, I would like us to think about it as a trolley problem. Trolley problems are exercises in thinking through the dilemma of what we might do if we cannot avoid harming one or more people through our choice of actions. They are called trolley problems because one of the most famous scenarios is that of a runaway trolley or tram that will kill five people unless you switch it to another track. If you do switch it, you will kill one person.

Trolley problems highlight just how uncomfortable we can be in making ethical decisions that prioritise groups over individuals, particularly if we know those individuals.

Choosing to teach a big history over a little one can make us feel similarly uncomfortable. If we range over 13.8 billion years, for example, will we lose sight of the stories, hopes and aspirations of individuals? Will we lose sight of the harms that individuals experienced in times of mass murder or genocide? Will we fail to learn from those episodes if we do not see the hurts and harms people enact upon one another at close range. Conversely, will we lack for exemplars?

Asking questions like these highlights the ethical value people place on histories. On this view, histories are not just important because of the evidence or the arguments they offer. They might be thought of as opportunities to think about what is good, fair, and just without actually acting in ways that might harm people. Think of them as being akin to car advertisements made under controlled driving conditions, with the appropriate warning label ‘do not try this at home’.

Ethics in Time and Space

This should not surprise us, because the connection between histories and ethics is ancient. This is not accidental. Aristotle, to take just one influential example, encouraged a practical view of ethics through time and over space in both Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics. Aristotle saw ethics as inexact because there is no simple relationship between good acts and a good life. He did identify virtues that he saw as key to living a good life, but he did not see living them as a simple matter. He cites the examples of wealth fuelling misery and of courage costing you your life.[1] To put it in everyday terms, ethics is not a matter of a checklist or a tick box activity that we can follow without thinking, or without taking responsibility. Consequently, he considered navigation to any virtue as an imprecise act, like navigating your trolley out of a dark tunnel by veering from one side to another (Nicomachean Ethics 1904b).

He also saw big goods as made up from little ones, and that big goods were better than little ones. He was thus interested in the virtues of societies as well as of individuals. If you assume that people do not always get it right when they act, and that big goods are better than little ones, it makes sense to look over time and space to see the virtues and vices at play.

Micro and / or Macro?

History makers around the world range over both time and space. Indeed, the oldest forms of history making—oral and written—are of a universal nature. They present an account of how the world makes sense or is connected, via the examination of the ethical principles at play in people’s actions.

But it would be a mistake to assume that histories are written on one scale: big or little. If you take a closer look at the works of say, Herodotus, Orosius and David Christian, you will see evidence of them homing in on particular points in time, or places, or even people, to advance their arguments. Universal, world, global and big history, in short, is not all big.[2]

Conversely, microhistories are not all small. Carlo Ginzburg and Claire Judde de Lariviere do look in detail at the actions of Menocchio and the snowball throwers of Murano in early modern Europe.[3] But they also comment on more general ideas of heresy and belief, and on the idea of a social contract in that early modern European world. They switch scales.

Scale- and Insight-Switching

When you home in, you see one thing; when you scale up, you see something else. The small is not necessarily more fine grained than the big, and one is not evidently better than the other. Read Claire Judde de Lariviere and you gain and understanding of how groups can keep or break promises with one another. Read David Christian and you realise that we might have become planetary energy managers without even fully realising it. The first reminds us that ethics is always a matter of acting with other people; the latter that our actions can harm or hurt non-human entities.

History makers are often adept scale switchers. They leap over times, slow down, zoom in and zoom out at again. This does not only make for interesting listening and hearing. It reinforces, over and over again, that ethics is not precise, simple, or of someone else’s making. The trolleys of history making are many, nimble, stoppable, and powerful in helping us to think about the good, the fair, and the just.

History teachers can also be adept scale switchers, and indeed, many are. This stems from their care for their students and their recognition that histories are often more about the worlds we wish to make than the worlds that have been experienced. They are as adept as magicians, and I think it timely that we celebrate their, and history makers’, ethical virtuosity.


Further Reading

  • Kamm, Frances. The Trolley Problem Mysteries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, David Christian, and Merry Wiesner-Hanks. “The Big and the Small of It: A Conversation on the Scales of History between David Christian, Merry Wiesner-Hanks and Marnie Hughes-Warrington.” Rethinking History 23, no. 4 (October 2, 2019): 520–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/13642529.2019.1656925.
  • Magnússon, Sigurður Gylfi, and István M. Szijártó. What Is Microhistory? Theory and Practice By. London & New York: Routledge, 2013

Web Resources


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross, 1994, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html (last accessed 21 February 2021).
[2] David Christian, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (London: Allen Lane, 2018).
[3] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); Claire Judde de Lariviere, The Revolt of Snowballs: Murano Confronts Venice, 1511 (London & New York: Routledge, 2018).


Image Credits

Old Tram 004 © 1998 Olaf1541 CC BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Citation

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie: History’s Trolley Problem. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 1, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-17580.

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Categories: 9 (2021) 1
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-17580

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  1. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 11 languages. Just copy and paste.


    The Apollo Opportunity

    On December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft left Earth orbit and started speeding toward the Moon. For the first time ever, humans could see Earth as a globe. With the growing physical distance, the astronauts began to see planetary patterns that they knew existed yet had never been seen before by human eyes. As astronaut James Lovell excitedly reported to Mission Control in Houston, Texas:

    I can see the entire Earth now out of the center window. I can see Florida, Cuba, Central America, the whole northern half of Central America, in fact, all the way down through Argentina and down through Chile.[1]

    A few days later while orbiting the Moon, the astronauts took the famous Earthrise picture that shows our small globe rising above the grey lunar surface, embedded within its dark cosmic environment. In 2009, astronaut William Anders formulated his change of view as follows:

    The biggest philosophy, foundation-shaking impression was seeing the smallness of the Earth. … Even the pictures don’t do it justice, because they always have this frame around them. But when you … put your eyeball to the window of the spacecraft, you can see essentially half of the universe. …That’s a lot more black and a lot more universe than ever comes through a framed picture. … It’s not how small the Earth was, it’s just how big everything else was.[2]

    During their voyages, the Apollo astronauts had to pay attention to both the larger overviews and the great many details of life within the spacecraft, on the Moon, and later back on Earth again. Yet seeing those larger patterns enriched their understanding of the details. Let’s call this novel way of perceiving reality the ‘Apollo opportunity.’

    This worked not only for those astronauts, but it also works within many academic disciplines. Who would expect, for instance, a discussion today among geographers whether it would be a problem to switch between world maps and local maps?

    So why would historians have such a problem? Perhaps because historians usually start out small. In doing so while already encountering so many details, how difficult would it be to reach out and not become overwhelmed by the inevitably much larger amounts of details? A totally understandable fear. Yet as was argued in my book Big History and the Future of Humanity, by first considering the large scale while later fitting in the details, doing so becomes much easier.[3]

    In writing historical accounts, one needs continuously to weave back-and-forth between various levels of analysis. My long term-history of Peruvian religion, politics, and ecology Religious Regimes in Peru while using one single Andean village as a focus may serve as an example.[4] Doing so was hard work. But the results were much more satisfying and convincing. While producing this synthesis I was inspired by the Apollo 8 Earthrise photo, which had left an enormous impression on me after seeing it in January of 1969.

    Not all the details that had I found could be accommodated in that study. But which history writing does contain all the details? None, or so I think. My much more detailed village study San Nicolás de Zurite does not do so, either, while it also consists of a combination of overviews and details.[5] Such a combination appears inevitable in all forms of history writing.

    By taking mental distance, historians and social scientists ought to separate their analytical role from their personal value judgments as much as possible, as the German sociologist Norbert Elias argued in his book Involvement and Detachment.[6] The ‘Apollo opportunity’ will make it much easier not only to systematically move between the various levels of analysis and see the connections between them, but also to take distance from personal ethical judgments.

    Zooming in and out in such ways may appear difficult. Yet the beginnings of all processes are simple. By tracing all of history from its very beginning, the big bang, those large patterns become visible almost automatically. That is a major reason of why big history is such a good idea. In doing so, we are still in the early stages of writing such accounts. A great deal of adventure is still awaiting us.


    [1] W. David Woods and Frank O’Brien, “Apollo 8 Flight Journal – Day 1: The Green Team and Separation,” NASA History, 2002, https://history.nasa.gov/afj/ap08fj/03day1_green_sep.html.
    [2] Andrew Chaikin and Victoria Kohl, Voices from the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences (New York: Viking Studio, 2009), 158.
    [3] Fred Spier, Big History and the Future of Humanity (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2010); Fred Spier, Big History and the Future of Humanity, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).
    [4] Fred Spier, Religious Regimes in Peru: Religion and State Development in a Long-Term Perspective and the Effects in the Andean Village of Zurite (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), http://www.bighistory.info/bhi_005_035.htm.
    [5] Fred Spier, San Nicolás de Zurite: Religion and Daily Life of an Andean Village in a Changing World (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1995), http://www.bighistory.info/bhi_005_035.htm.
    [6] Norbert Elias, Involvement and Detachment (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

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