An In-Depth Analysis of Two Moral Dilemmas: Help Needed!

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. :slight_smile:

Taking a class, are you?

In the first scenario I’d say you’d be morally justified either pulling the switch, or not pulling it. Either way, your intent is to save a life, not to kill the person/people on the other track, so the principle of double effect would be in play.

The second question is also answered by the principle of double effect. Your intent in shooting down the plane is prevent an attack against a large number of people, the death of the people on the plane is an unintended consequence. This is similar to what happened with Flight 93, except it was the passengers who decided to crash the plane and prevent the terrorist from reaching their destination.

These have very clear answers for us:

  1. Yes, you ought, all things being equal (such as the other one person isn’t the president, your mother, the only person on Earth with the knowledge to cure cancer, etc.)… The train hitting the other person is not intended and does not form part of the “success” of saving the other people.

  2. Yes, you ought… You are shooting down a plane, not shooting the people in it.

Here’s a better one - see if you can solve…

There is a train heading for a large group of people. It has two tracks that both head to the group, one of which has an enormous man tied to it. In fact, he is so enormous that his girth would prevent the train from reaching the group, though it would surely kill him.

Can you divert it to the track with the man tied to it?

My initial response would be that you can’t, because by doing so you are actively intending the death of the large man. That would mean that the principle of double-effect would not be in play. In fact… it would almost be a moral necessity to -not- pull the lever, because that is the only way you could avoid actively intending a death…

That is a much harder one…

LOL! (That was my initial reaction, too…)

[quote=ClemtheCatholic] I feel like a large part of depends on how we categorize the act in question
[/quote]

That’s exactly the dilemma – these sorts of thought problems all boil down to how you slice it – that is, how you define the various issues (act, circumstance, intent, ‘good effect’, ‘bad effect’)…!

Do you? If so, you’d have to defend your approach against not only consequentialism, but also proportionalism. If not, couldn’t you say that double effect doesn’t apply?

, 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)?

Double effect never attempts to justify one effect against another (even when it’s successfully applied).

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)?

In order to answer that question, you need to define the act taken – and defend other analyses that define the act differently! Is the act “diverting the trolley away from five people” or “diverting the trolley toward one person”… or is it something else altogether?

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.

Nope. That doesn’t make the analysis any different… unless you’re claiming that morality depends on the identity of the person. Moreover, you have to be able to answer the question of whether the quantity of persons is the salient issue in this case.

In this scenario, if the fighter jets were to shoot down the passenger plane, what would we describe as being their act?

Correct. This is the critical question – the nature of the act.

You’re “on the right track” with your reply.

However, to add to the subtlety of your explanation… A person would perhaps divert the train, which would end up killing the fat man, and then say, “I didn’t mean to kill him! I wasn’t trying to!”

So how is that resolved?

They can say whatever they want, that doesn’t actually modify their intent. Based on the scenario as your presented it, the fact of the large man’s girth being able to stop the train is the only reason the person would consider flipping the switch and allowing the train to hit him. As such, he would be actively intending the large man’s death, and would therefore be guilty of murder.

Haha, I’m actually not taking a class! But I do some blogging, and I was planning to do a blog post on moral dilemmas. But then when I started pondering them, I realized it’s going to be a lot harder than I first anticipated! :wink:

Anyhow, thank you everyone for your replies so far. I’ll respond to the posts which require a follow-up from me, or which I have questions on!.

@e_c, how would you respond to the first dilemma if the person on the track was about to discover a cure for cancer? Like I said in my original post, it then starts feeling rather uncomfortable, because we start making all these value judgements about people’s lives. But maybe that’s unavoidable…?

As for your second dilemma, it made me laugh because I have a running joke with a friend of mine about how it seems that nearly all moral dilemmas involve a very large person. :stuck_out_tongue: Like there’s this one about getting trapped in a sea cave with the tide coming in and a fat person blocking the entrance and… anyways, I digress! But to answer your dilemma, to me the right course of action is clearer there: you should not divert the train, because to do so would be to will the collision of the train with the fat man, which would be bad intent. And you would be using the good end of saving the group of people to justify the bad means of using the fat man as a train stopper. Does that make sense?

@Gorgias, I may not be talking a class but I am certainly learning! So could you explain proportionalism to me, please?

It’s interesting how several of you are highlighting the fact that a lot of this comes down to the nature of the act. In the first dilemma, I’m inclined to say the act is simply the act of switching a lever, which would obviously be morally neutral. Though that might be oversimplifying it. As for the second dilemma, I find that much harder. I don’t think you can say the act is just the act of shooting down a plane, because that seems to be to deliberately ignore the fact that the plane is full of people. And I find it difficult to say the act is the act of shooting down the terrorists, because the fighter jets’ missiles will no doubt be indiscriminate in whom they kill. Certainly the intent is to kill just the terrorists, but I’m not sure the act can be defined in such narrow terms.

  1. It seems it involves practical wisdom at that point… One can’t lay down a general rule about such values, and reasonable people might disagree. Do I save my father from the fire, or my dog? That is easy. Do I save my father who is near death anyway, or my second-cousin who is not? Harder.

  2. Yeah! Though you have to be careful with the word “intent.” Precision is super important once you start with these scenarios… Yes, one “intends” the object, but it is not the same as the “intention” of the act.

Along that line, it is interesting that you use the language “to will the collision” whereas ProdglArchitect uses the language “intending the large man’s death.”

We have to go on a little quest to find out how one can seem both to want and not want the fat man to die. In what sense does he wish it? In what sense does he not? Why is the former more important for the evaluation than the latter?

Principle 2: The end does not justify the means: one may not do bad that good may come of it.

The “bad” you refer to is actually a reference to “moral evil”. One maydo acts comprising a physical evil. Eg. I may break down a door to rescue a child from a burning house. I may resolve to kill an aggressor where that appears to be the necessary means to save my life.

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.

The PDE is a tool, not an additional plank to moral theology. It does not actually add to the model of moral acts which requires that all 3 fonts of morality are ‘good’.

The “bad effect” is in the consequences, not the object. Therefore it does not breach Principle 2. The act of switching the tracks is pursued as a life-saving act. We have no wish or need to see persons die on the other track.

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).

Weighing up consequences is intrinsic to Catholic theology - it is a part of the process of determining whether we have 3 good fonts. It is nothing like consequentialism, which places all the weight on the consequences, and by so doing, eschews the notion of intrinsically evil acts (being acts which are always wrong to choose no matter the good intentions or anticipated good consequences). Judging (weighing up) consequences is a personal matter - two good people may arrive at opposing conclusions and both may act morally in pursuing their judgements.

Assuming a sane president acting in good faith, the moral meaning of the act itself is the defence of innocent lives, with an equivalently good intention. The death of the on-board hostages is neither desired nor needed - it is an unfortunate (unavoidable) consequence of the seemingly only means of saving innocents. The same reasoning can be applied to various acts of war that entail risks to innocents.

The PDE is expressed in various ways. Item (3) above is entirely misleading however, because physical evils are permissible as a means to good effects. I gave two examples earlier.

I think the intention of this condition (3) is to act as a check that one has properly assessed item (1), ie. that one has properly assessed the moral object. Eg. We often hear various acts, such as euthanasia, being regarded as “acts of mercy” - a kindness, and thus good. Point (3) however would give us pause when we realise that the goodness (relieving of suffering) came about from the bad effect (death). Therefore, our act was to will the death of an innocent - which is a moral evil, quite apart from why we do it.

This is why I remarked earlier that PDE is a tool. But it does not present some new information beyond the 3 fonts.

This does not sound right. Isn’t the means supposed to be the force itself, which may be lethal? If the body is being used as a weapon, the object is to disable the body inasmuch as it is a weapon, which might require an amount of force that could kill the aggressor, given the circumstances.

Here’s Thomas on the PDE:

Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

I may adopt death of the assailant as a MEANS to preserve my own life, though I may not take more extreme measures than the circumstances warrant. This course of action is not the same as killing with an Intention (first font) to kill. The evil Intention of the act would render it immoral.

Let me try to understand what you are saying.

Killing is a means to the intended end of self-preservation, because that is what one does when using lethal force knowingly… right? And because this is an aggressor, he has forfeited his right to live, thus granting license to the victim to kill him.

But private citizens are by nature not in the position to judge if a person ought to die. That’s the problem.

Here is the NCE’s take on the good effect/bad effect dynamic:

“The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.”

The body is disabled - this simultaneously (or even first) renders it unable to be used as a weapon and possibly separates the soul (kills). Killing is therefore an unnecessary part of the equation of lethal force… It really has those two separate effects.

Due to these considerations coupled with Thomas’ formulation of the definition of murder (which includes any intention to kill by a private citizen), and his express rejection of “intending to kill” as possible under double-effect, I don’t see room for your position.

And this leads those critical of the Church to conclude (erroneously) that the Church’s moral principles are arbitrary.

Indeed it does. They say, “Oh, so now it’s just whatever you want all of a sudden? Wouldn’t a REAL objective morality have a clear rule for everything? So which is it, is it all up to us, or did God give us a rule for this?” Etc.

But figuring out which is “better” doesn’t usually come with many discernible rules, other than the rule of wisdom.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.