Catholic view on utilitarianism

This is similar to the counsel the Chief Priest gave to the Sanhedrin regarding the punishment of Jesus. “It is better for one man to die to save the nation”.

The problem was that they did not believe Jesus was who he said he was–they were blinded by their sin. And his Most Holy blood was on their hands.

Because it wasn’t your action that sent the trolley down the original track.

The “trick” to seeing what’s really at play here is recognizing that the scenario is attempting to ignore the distinction between “actively choosing a course of action” and “happening upon a scenario and assessing it.”

If you assess the situation and recognize that you cannot choose an action that will fail to kill innocent people, then (according to Catholic moral teaching), then you must choose to not take such an action. Whether it’s five people or one person is immaterial to the question of the morality of the act. Either way, it’s immoral.

(Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s immaterial to the people on the track: they have a real vested interest in your choice! And, perhaps, they might say “do THIS so that I don’t die!”)

I don’t think we want to get into asking the question of “intrinsic” evil, since that’s a completely different discussion.

However, if you’re just asking “is flipping the switch and causing a death (that would otherwise not occur) a moral evil?”, then the answer is ‘yes’.

On the other hand, the answer to the question “is ‘failing to cause the deaths of five people to be avoided’ a moral evil?” is (in this case) ‘no, not if you have no way to do it in a morally licit fashion.’

Really? OK: let’s see how you reason that one out. 'Cause, “murdering an innocent person at the behest of a terrorist” sure sounds like an immoral action…! :thinking:

“Jews? Here? Why would I be hiding Jews?”

The witness of the Gospel is that this is a prophecy, not a doctrinal statement of moral theology. In fact, Jesus did die in order to save the nations.

  1. Flipping the switch is neutral.
  2. The bad effect (the death of the solitary person) is not willed.
  3. The good effect (saving the other five) flows from the action.
  4. Saving the five is a sufficiently desirable outcome.

What could be simpler?

The attempted counter argument fails, because it does not realize that “actively performing an act” is exactly the same as “passively allowing it to happen” (as long as neither one is puts the acting agent into danger or caeteris paribus). An example would be: “giving someone a poison is exactly as bad as withholding a life saving medication.” If someone allows an action which will cause a death, which he could prevent (without jeopardizing himself), it is exactly as despicable as performing that action himself.

Of course life is much more complicated. If there is a limited amount of medication, then one must use some decision making method, who will receive the medication and who will not. No matter what the final decision will be, the decision making process will include a “utilitarian” process. Is saving five children “better”, then saving one old man?


I dont know if either side is correct, but for the sake of argument…

If withholding live saving medication is exactly the same as murder, are we all murders when we buy a tv instead of donating the money to feed the starving or buy life saving medications for some extremely poor people in the world?


Let’s stay with the actual dilemma. The scenario is that there is someone (A) with a lethal condition, and there is someone else (B) who has the ways and means to prevent that deathly outcome. Whether (B) helps or not, he is in no danger (or even in discomfort). Under such circumstances withholding the helping “substance” is exactly as problematic as actively killing person (B). That is the scenario and the conclusion. Once we can come to a decision, the scenario can be made more complicated.

The point is that in this setup, there is a direct connection between the act / or non-act and the outcome. In your generic scenario there is no direct connection between buying a TV set and the death of (B). Giving the money to a charity does not create a cause-effect outcome for (B). Let’s stick with a concrete problem before attempting to generalize.

1 Like

Nations not nation. So we are both correct.

Israel had the greater sin b/c they lacked the authority to crucify him; Pilate had the authority.

He didn’t realize that he was making a prophecy; in his mind, he was talking about “the nation [of Israel]” not also “all the nations” (i.e., the term for Gentiles).

Hmm… not sure that’s how the Church teaches it. :wink:

Your wording is highly misleading. It is not “assessing” the scenario, rather “assessing it, and choosing choosing a course of action”. And not interfering is also a course of action. You cannot wiggle out by saying “I did not send the trolley, so I am innocent of the outcome”. This would apply even if there would be no one on the other track.

I doubt it. Do you have an ex-cathedra, infallible proclamation which forbids you to choose the least harmful outcome and forces you to “freeze” and allow a worse outcome to happen? As I said, I doubt it, but if you can present an ex-cathedra, infallible teaching, then I will concede. Sometimes the circumstances force you to choose between two unfavorable outcomes. It is not your fault if such circumstances arise. But it would be your fault if you did not choose the one which has the least amount of damage (all other things being equal).

Unfortunately the Gestapo was not composed of idiots, who could be mislead by such a simple “trick”. Sometimes you must tell an outright lie. And such a lie can be justified under certain circumstances. The basic problem is that you (in general) attempt to separate the different parts of a proposition, and assign a moral value to them as if they were independent from the rest.

I don’t know what was in his mind.

Read all 4 accounts; the answer is in one of the 4.

I disagree. :wink:

“Not interfering” is “not acting”. It’s a lack of action, not a course of action, so to speak. And so, it really is an assessment. The moral actor assesses the situation, thinking to himself, “do I have a morally acceptable option here?”… and if he does not, then he does not act.

“I did not send the trolley, and I have no morally acceptable option of action, and so I am not morally responsible for the outcome.” That’s precisely the situation here.

You can doubt it all you want, but it’s right there in black-and-white in the Catechism: one may not do evil so that good may result from it. (It’s at paragraph 1756. Look it up. Heck, it’s so important that they say it again in #1761! :wink: )

While you’re checking out that reference, take a look at #1759, too:

So, yes: the Church does teach what you’re doubting it teaches. :man_shrugging:

No. The world might tell us that this is the case, but if by “two unfavorable outcomes” you mean “two sinful actions”, then that is not the teaching of the Church. The Church says “do not sin”. Period. Full stop.

Again, no. The responsibility you bear for the sin might be lessened by the circumstances, but it would still be sinful, all the same.

OK, right back at ya, then: show me an “ex-cathedra, infallible proclamation” from the Church that makes this assertion. :wink:

That is sophism. Do you really think that inaction will absolve you from the responsibility from the result of your inaction? The act of flipping the switch is a morally neutral action. Whether it is morally good or evil can only be decided if ALL the ramifications are considered. And here “ALL” is the operating word.

The catechism can change. It is not an infallible teaching. Saving the lives of 5 innocent people is not evil. Have you ever heard of the “foreseen, but unintended consequences”?

Not all sinful actions are the same. And if you only have “sinful” outcomes available, then you should choose the less sinful one. And “action” is not more sinful than “inaction” per se. They can only be evaluated by their outcomes. Both are morally neutral in and of themselves.

Actually, it’s logic. Since when is “inaction” an action?

In the context of the thought experiment we’re discussing, absolutely!

There’s a difference between “I could save that person but I just don’t feel like it” and “I can’t save that person without killing another”. The former is blameworthy, but the latter is not.

And, here we go…

This is the problem with discussions of “double effect”. There’s always the possibility of defining the situation so narrowly that the salient parts of the problem go away. Murder isn’t murder, 'cause it’s just “pulling a trigger.” Taking an action to kill a person isn’t murder, 'cause it’s just “flipping a switch”. Both are “morally neutral actions”, right?

I disagree with your approach. In order to attempt to make your point, you’ve stripped the action of all its context. Using this approach, each and every human action is a morally neutral action. It’s clear that this approach is invalid. Sophistry, even, perhaps! :wink:

Two thoughts:

  • while it may change, it nevertheless is the teaching of the Church; a teaching – authoritatively, mind you! – that you don’t want to hear.
  • the issue isn’t “infallibility”, it’s authoritative teaching. And that, my friend, you find in the Catechism always. Even when it disagrees with your own opinion. :man_shrugging:

Ahh, but saving the lives of five innocent people by killing another innocent is evil.

Not what the Church teaches. And, although you’ve been presented with the Church teaching that contradicts your statement, you refuse to budge. Fair enough. “There are none so blind…”

I’m not claiming that any arbitrary action is more sinful than any arbitrary inaction. Who ever said that?!?

I’m merely claiming that, in the context of this particular question, “inaction” is the only moral choice.

And by the way, the Church doesn’t evaluate the morality of acts by their outcomes; it evaluates them by their objects and intentions.

Yes, without taking ALL the circumstances into consideration. So, let’s do it.

I guess, a step by step review is needed. The actual, physical action is always morally neutral. The morality can only be examined if ALL the points are taken into consideration.

Scenario #1:

  1. Runaway train approaches.
  2. Switch is not flipped.
  3. Foreseen and unintended consequence: 5 people die.
  4. Foreseen and intended consequence: none.

Scenario #2:

  1. Runaway train approaches.
  2. Switch is flipped.
  3. Foreseen and unintended consequence: 1 people dies.
  4. Foreseen and intended consequence: 5 people saved.

On the very contrary, I take ALL the context into consideration. The point is that without taking ALL the context into consideration, you are not in the position to render a moral judgment. You cannot stop your analysis halfway, and declare that flipping the switch is “evil”, because of the “foreseen but unintended consequence” of the death of a lonely person. Actually, it is your analysis which attempts to strip the case from half of its consequences.

The intent of flipping the switch is NOT aimed at killing the lonely person, it is to save the other five. So it cannot be “murder”. The outcome is partially (mostly) good, partially bad. If one could keep the good and eliminate the bad, one should do it. The act, flipping the switch is morally neutral. Overall, the act is moral. That is all.

Remember the “foreseen but unintended consequences”. That is the key to this dilemma.

I just want to state that after reading all this I’m so glad I’m not Catholic and can just save the five at the loss of the one. I would definitely morn the fact that I had to do so but I also wouldn’t lose more than a few nights sleep over it.


So, then… that means that when we’re considering the “act”, what we’re not talking about is the bare “actual physical action”… as you were asserting. :wink:

Note what this means: the direct result of your action is the killing of an innocent person. No matter where you go from here, you’re already sunk: your action was immoral.

So, here’s the thing: the taking of an action which has the direct result of killing a person cannot be called “foreseen but unintended”. That’s a misuse of the construct.

Fine. If you want to take the analysis in that direction, then the response is “OK, so if the intent isn’t evil, then the object is: flipping the switch kills the innocent person, and therefore, the object is immoral.”

See how easy this is? You can’t wriggle out of an immoral act, simply by looking at one part, squinting really hard, and pretending it isn’t. :man_shrugging:

Soooo… you’d be happy that you caused an innocent person to be killed? :flushed:

I am taking EVERY aspect into consideration. The bare act AND all the other aspects. Repeated it several times, too.

Which was NOT intended. It is a very regrettable side effect of trying to save the other five, also innocent persons.

That is the exact, proper use of the principle. What else would be the meaning of “foreseen, but unintended”??? Which part of “foreseen, but unintended” don’t you understand? I mean, really? Is that so difficult to comprehend?

1 Like

Twisting it again? Patty explicitly said that she would MOURN that she had no other option, and she probably would lose a few night’s worth of sleep over it, precisely because it is a serious decision, but eventually she (and I) would get over it. Saving the lives of five people was the aim, and she would achieve that. Your “argument” is definitely in BAD FAITH.

Of course Patty can answer it if she so chooses.

1 Like

Where did I say I’d be happy about. It would be awful! However, I would balance the loss of one and the saving of five. I wouldn’t be fretting over the sin of the action, just the sadness that one had to be lost. Remember, your scenario has no option where all would be saved.


Don’t worry about it. There are some people who start to throw some non-sequitur at you when they run out of arguments.

1 Like

I think she would be happy she saved five.

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