Catholic view on utilitarianism

So, utilitarianism.
You’re probably familiar with the trolley problem. A train is heading to a place where 5 people are on the rails. I can switch a lever and direct the train to another rail where only one person is. Should I do it even though I would be directly responsible for one death?
I know Catholics aren’t utilitarians and in most cases this coincides with my “moral gut feeling”. I for example think that Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” shouldn’t kill the old lady (that everyone hates) to take her money and save poor people with it. But for some reason, in the trolley problem I feel like I should choose ‘the lesser evil’. Both scenario’s aren’t really that different. What’s the Catholic perspective on this?
Does the rule “the ends don’t satisfie the means” always apply?
Thanks for answers!

A person should try to stop the trolley or free as many people as possible, not try to redirect the trolley so it kills someone else. So, the scenario is just presenting a false choice. It’s kind of a sophomoric “problem” to even entertain as being a serious thought experiment, or whatever you want to call it.

You basically answered your own question about “utilitarianism” (that’s a made up term isn’t it?) So is this just another “trolley problem thread”?


This one is a no-brainer. You try to stop or slow the trolley, of course. But you also remove it from the path of greatest destruction. That would mean switching tracks.

Something happened to my friend many years ago. She was skiing down a mountain and was going to wreck. She knew she was going to wreck. She could either hit a tree or hit a lady who was standing there. In the split second she had, she knew hitting the lady would be a less punishing impact (to her, at least), so that is what she did. Neither she, nor the lady she hit got seriously injured. So it all turned out ok. LOLOL. 40 years later and we still laugh at this. But, I digress. Still, go for the path of least destruction.

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There are approx 5 bajillion threads about that poor trolley :slight_smile:


Seems like the Principal of Double Effect applies here.


It’s a form of consequentialist ethics. There are many types of utilitarianism, though I think Act Utilitarianism is by far the most well-known. I remember in my ethics classes being a bit partial to Rule Utilitarianism (when I wasn’t being partial to Kantianism), but I also wasn’t Catholic at the time.

That is some cringe worthy stuff. It’s like watching a toddler run away from his mother and try to ride a skateboard down a hill.

I’m not sure what’s cringe about it. It’s pretty standard ethics (at least from an academic sense), though by nature of being consequentialist, not exactly in line with Catholic ethics.

Philippa Foot created this problem to describe the moral legitimacy of indirect abortion.

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Maybe I don’t understand it. It seems to be based off of being “happy”, whatever that means I’m sure no one agrees on. That’s a pretty weak foundation to build a set of ethics on.

Yeah, I think it probably meets all these four conditions.

  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
  3. 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.
  4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect“ (p. 1021).

Actually… no. It predates Foot’s formulation of “five on one track, one on another.” And, in fact, in the original formulation (or so I’m told), it asked whether a judge would be acting morally if he framed an innocent for a crime, in order to avoid a murderous riot should the guilty person be convicted of the crime.

No, ‘double effect’ certainly does not apply here!

  1. The act of throwing a lever in order to direct a trolley onto a track such that it kills one person is morally evil. It is evil to direct a trolley onto a track, knowing that you are killing a person. One may not do evil in order to achieve a good.

  2. The murder of an innocent is never ‘compensated’ by any “sufficiently desirable effect”.

The Catholic perspective here is that one may not commit an evil act, even if one thinks some sort of good might occur as a result.

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The act to me is flipping train a switch to change its direction & save 5 lives. Its absolutely not my intent to kill anyone. That seems an indirect thing that I absolutely don’t want.

It’s unavoidable that someone’s going to die. My only choice is to save who I can or not.


If it were an empty track, sure. It isn’t, though. And therefore…

… it’s as direct as “saving five lives”. And that’s why it’s impermissible. You cannot, morally licitly, commit an evil act.

Then don’t send the trolley down the track at the person. :wink:

That doesn’t give you the moral right to become the acting agent of the killing.

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This doesn’t sound right.


How is it not equally your choice to kill the 5 people if you choose not to flip the switch?


Exactly. You are choosing to not kill 5 people. You are not choosing to kill anyone.


The Catholic rule is that — paraphrasing a book JP2 wrote as a young bishop — generals can sacrifice soldiers because of the love of the fatherland they both share, so they have a common goal and the soldier is not being unilaterally sacrificed for the general’s own private goals.

To some extent — although with a sprinkling of ‘Entitlement’ philosophy — this also works for social contracts, criminal penalties, and so on.

You are not necessarily prohibited from taking care of the more lightly wounded first, so that they can return to combat, so that you can still have a chance of winning (the French solution from Vietnam).

For the same reason you aren’t necessarily always bound by such romantic notions as putting women first. But, you’d better had a better countervailing moral principle to support your position.

As long as you aren’t committing intrinsic evils, you are allowed to pursue the greater good, even if it’s not pretty to watch.

It’s not necessarily immoral to cut on health-care so you can spend more on defence. Withdrawing health-care past a certain age would be inhuman, but withdrawing super-expensive surgeries from people who would gain like two more years to live is not necessary immoral versus e.g. spending more on education, public roads and whatever (let alone health-care for other recipients, notably in whom it would have longer-lasting benefits).

So I guess the question is… Is flipping the switch that will kill one an intrinsic evil? & Is not flipping the switch an intrinsic evil?

I honestly dread that one. I would try to escape the dilemma by seeing if I could be considered to be acting under duress, having my hand forced, and so on.

Let’s say I live in a monarchy. An enemy soldier holds my king at gunpoint, orders me to shoot someone else or else he will shoot my king. I’m not necessarily convinced it’s immoral for me to yield to that coercion. However, it would be immoral for me to kill someone to harvest organs for my king (or myself, or my son, etc.).

Coercion changes the rules, as you aren’t voluntarily doing evil. This applies to the ‘would you lie to the Nazis if they asked you where Jews were hiding’ dilemma as well.

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