Okay, so before I get to the two dilemmas, allow me to briefly explain where I’m at in terms of my understanding of the moral principles the Church teaches us.
Principle 1: There are three elements to an act: the object, the intent, and the circumstances. It should be noted here that effects or consequences fall under the bracket of circumstances. However, it should also be noted that the Catholic Church rejects consequentialism as a sound theory of ethics.
Principle 2: The end does not justify the means: one may not do bad that good may come of it.
Principle 3: There is a principle known as the principle of double effect (PDE), which applies to situations where one commits an act which has both a good and a bad effect. There are four conditions necessary for the PDE to apply: (1) the act itself must be good or at least morally neutral, (2) the intent of the actor must be good (he must not desire the bad effect), (3) the good effect must not come about as a result of the bad effect, (4) the good effect must outweigh the bad.
Okay, now let me explain the two hypothetical dilemmas.
Scenario 1: Trolley on the Track
A trolley is bearing down on five people who are tied to the rails of a track. You observe all this, but you don’t have time to untie any of the five people. You do, however, have time to divert the trolley to another track. The only problem is, this second track also has someone tied to it, and you don’t have time to untie him either. So, do you leave the trolley be, and leave the five people to do? Or do you divert the trolley to the second track, and have just the one person die?
So… I think you have to try applying the principle of double effect here, but I’m a little stuck on the third condition: are you using the good effect (the saving of five people) to justify the bad effect (the death of one person)? Or, put another way, are you doing something bad (diverting the trolley towards someone) in order to bring about something good (diverting the trolley to avoid five persons)? If your answer to either of those questions is yes, then under Catholic moral teaching your course of action can’t be justified (see principle 2 above).
Now, even if you think you can justify diverting the trolley in the scenario outlined above, we could add an additional element into the mix, just to make things more difficult. What if the one person on the second track is in fact a brilliant scientist who is about to discover a cure for cancer? In that case, would it be better to save the five people on the first track, or to save the lone scientist on the second track and, indirectly, the lives of the millions of cancer patients whom his discovery will cure? It all gets very murky at this point, and it begins to feel a little bit too much like consequentialism (which, as already noted, the Church rejects).
So, what to do?
Scenario 2: Hijacked Passenger Plane
Terrorists have hijacked a passenger plane with 200 people on board. The plane iis bearing down on the Empire State Building. The president has the option of ordering fighter jets to shoot down the passenger plane before it reaches its target. Should he do it?
This is a surprisingly difficult one for me. I feel like a large part of depends on how we categorize the act in question (see principle 1 above). In this scenario, if the fighter jets were to shoot down the passenger plane, what would we describe as being their act? Was it to shoot down a bunch of terrorists? Or, was it to shoot down a bunch of terrorists AND 200 innocent civilians? If we assume the former, then sure, I can see that the president would clearly be justified in what he did. But if we assume the latter - and that seems to me to be more reasonable - then how do we justify it? Similar questions arise with, say, wartime scenarios involving the bombing of enemy bases. Is it permissible to bomb enemy bases (and kill the soldiers in them) even in cases were the bases also contain civilians? I have a feeling it is permissible to some extent, but I’m not sure how to make give a consistent moral explanation of why that would be the case.
And there we have it. I hope the above makes sense… let me know if you have any questions! And if you have any ideas or answers, please do share them.