Runaway trolley problem


Yes – you’ve entered into “double effect” territory here. However, the difference is that there’s not a “double effect” situation in the trolley dilemma, regardless of the fact that some would wish to spin it that way…


I think I would only say the act that resulted in the death of the child could be a moral good (though decidedly lesser) if the killing of the child was not guaranteed and every effort was exhausted to save the child as well. If the outcome of death to the child is certain, but the mother can save herself, then I would be inclined to label the act as morally neutral.

For example, in the case of organs or tissue needing to be removed from the mother which will ultimately result in the death of the child due to no longer being connected to the elements that will sustain their life, the moral directness of the act is less than if the child was outright aborted, which would be a direct attack on the life of the child, and therefore morally evil.

I think it’s also important to consider that an unborn child, no matter how healthy, is in one of the most vulnerable possible states of life. Their entire survival is predicate on the “life support” of the mother. Because of this, I would argue that the unborn child’s death in these scenario’s is less direct than in other scenarios because their death is a result of their lack of development and their inability to survive off of “life support”. There is not a direct attack on or action being taken against the child and their death is arguably a natural consequence due to their phase of development and state in life, where as in other described scenarios in this thread, the actions are more direct: pull a trigger, innocent person is struck and killed by a bullet, pull a lever, innocent person is struck and killed by a trolley, light dynamite and the innocent fatman is struck and killed by the explosive force.

As you and I have both mentioned, it is the moral directness of the act and the death of the innocent that matters.

The directness, the naturally existing vulnerability inherent to an unborn child, the mother’s self involvement, and the self sacrificial aspect in the mother/child scenario make the line in the sand much harder to locate, though by this I do not mean to say there is not a line; it is just far more complicated.


Another possible dilemma manifests if the mother were incapacitate in some way and the decision was up to a doctor or a family member. The mother being able to sacrifice herself is a morally good act, but in the case of her being incapacitated, that choice is no longer a self sacrifice.

A family member or doctor, because of their relationship to the patient, are potentially in a position of legitimate authority and responsibility for the common good and at that point have the authority to make prudential judgments for the common good based on the foreseeable outcomes and the circumstances (for example, other children who would be orphaned).

This has brought me to imagine another alternative (though highly unlikely) scenario: You as a non-involved party are walking down the street and stumble upon such a mother/child situation (life of one or the other), the mother is incapacitated, and the doctor says he will proceed only based on you making a decision on who to save. Does the doctor saying this make you a legitimate authority, making you legitimately responsible for the common good of the situation, or do you not actually have the authority to pass prudential judgement on such a scenario?


I agree. the “double effect” principle is more concievable in the mother/child scenario than in most of the other scenarios in this thread.

  1. Is pulling the trigger of a loaded gun pointed at a cardboard target after verifying that there no person in danger of being shot intrinsically evil?

  2. Is pulling the trigger of a loaded gun pointed at a cardboard target that is blocking from view a person standing behind it without the shooter’s knowledge intrinsically evil?

  3. Is pulling the trigger of a loaded gun pointed at a cardboard target WITHOUT verification of whether or not there is person potentially in the line of fire and in danger of being shot intrinsically evil?

  4. Is pulling the trigger of a loaded gun pointed at a cardboard target with a person observably standing in FRONT of it and in the path of the bullet intrinsically evil?

Some acts are intrinsically evil. Some acts are not, but become so with the addition of new information and variables.

This can help determine the difference between unintended casualties, accidental death, manslaughter, and murder. Not only what was the actor’s intent, but also what did the actor know?

Any act is a willed decision made by an actor based on the information available to them. Because the act cannot take place or be separated from the actor initiating it, the morality of the act is also predicate on the knowledge available to the actor.

For example, someone mentioned a doctor deliberately stopping a patients heart would be immoral, but if the doctor were doing so because they were doing bypass surgery or a transplant to save the patient’s life, it would not be immoral. The assessment of the objective morality of the act is not based on the intent that the doctor has, which is saving the patient’s life. The objective morality of the act is based on the knowledge that the heart is being stopped as one component of a series of acts that has a morally good end.

If you brought a doctor into an OR and told him, “stop and remove this patient’s heart” and gave him no other information, it would be immoral for him to do so. If you brought the doctor into an OR and told him, “stop and remove this patient’s heart so that you (or another doctor) can insert, connect, and start this transplant heart and save the patient’s life”, it would be a moral to do so.

The actor’s intent come’s into play when assessing their own moral culpability for the act, but not in the assessing of the act itself.


To further demonstrate that intent of the actor does not affect the morality of the act itself, I present this scenario:

An alternative version of the trolley scenario, where the trolley is on a path down track A with four innocent people tied to the tracks and facing certain death. The only option available to you is to pull a lever to divert the trolley down track B where only one person is tied to the tracks and not facing certain death, unless you do pull the lever. The difference here is that the person on track B is not an innocent person, but a mass murderer. While being tied to the tracks and unable to free himself, his hands are not restrained and he is holding a gun and shooting at a both you and a nearby crowd of innocent people.

If you as the actor decide to pull the level, your motive could be derived from variety of different intents…

Perhaps your intent is to save the four innocents on track A.
Maybe your intent is to save the people in the crowd being shot at by the person on track B.
Possibly your intent is to save your own life from the active threat against it presented by the person on track B.
It is also conceivable that your intent would be any combination of some or all three of these intents.

Or maybe it is the fact that you would like to catch the next scheduled trolley heading down track A, and not diverting the trolley would significantly hamper your ability to do so due to the cleanup and inevitable investigation that would occur if you had not switched the tracks.
Or maybe the guy tied to track B was a complete jerk to you in high school and you will derive much pleasure at watching his ultimate demise at the hands of the runaway trolley.

As you can see, the intent could be varied and can affect your moral culpability and whether you are a hero, or self-absorbed, or guilty of murder, but the morality of the act itself is not dependent on your intent.

The morality of the act is dependent on the directness of your action (pulling the lever will immediately result in the death of the person on track B), and your knowledge (that the person on track B is a mass murderer who is presently an active threat to innocent life).

Your intent, motivation, interior disposition, etc… do not change the morality of the act: It is moral to take an action that ends the life of someone who is actively presenting a threat to innocent life.

Your intent, motivation, interior disposition, etc… do however effect your moral culpability, for example whether your motive for the act is to save innocent life or to take revenge and settle a score.

It is possible to complete a morally good or morally neutral act and still be personally culpable for acting immorally based on your intentions.


Objectively perceived intent can change a less than determinantly perceived scenario from ,say, self defence to murder.
This intent may well be a different sort of intent as used to decide culpability.

Thus my intent was to use excessive force (though objective facts could be read either way). Hence not self defence but manslaughter. If I also intended to kill then murder, but perhaps not mortally culpable as I was protecting my family all the same.

I think this is both Aquinas and a JPII thing. Morality is determined from the perspective of the actor. Now that holds for what the actor sees himself objectively doing even if he is mistaken. Oedipus is not evil or culpable because he did not know he was committing incest. But a theoretic all knowing jury would disagree, he was indeed objectively doing so, though not culpable due to fair ignorance.

But where do we go with “objectivity” when the jury too is bamboozled by ambiguous or borderline evidence as with some lethal self defence scenarios or overly complex and unlikely trolley armchair thinking? It seems objective to discern what the actor himself thought he was objectively doing to decide the matter!


Are you echoing what I said, that intent effects individual culpability but not the morality of the act itself, or are you saying that intent does change the status moral objects of the act?


Just added to my post after you posted!
I am saying, in a world where justice is blind and no all seeing God whispers to a jury, that objectivity can be so unattainable as to be subjective.

In those cases why not base objectivity on what we objectively determine the actor to have objectively perceived things.


BTW isnt this a little loose re terminology?
What do we mean by “morality” here. What to we mean by “act”?

If you are abstracting from culpability of the sin then there is ho personal human “act” to analyse. Only a perceived outwardly observed scenario. I prefer to call that “the action” or “matter”.

Likewise with the “morality” of this action…when we abstract from the person there is no personal culpability involved, there really is no morality left to speak of. What is left is only an objective consideration of whether this objective action, this matter, is evil and if so how grave. I prefer to use the traditional word “how disordered” is it.

Pedantic I know, but without doing so all these discussions cross categories bewtween the physical and moral levels of evil.


I agree. Honestly, while I do think that these philosophical exercises are entertaining and helpful to get us thinking about the various complexities involved in moral decision making, their usefulness falls short once you try to apply any true humanity to the situation.

Objectively drawing lines between morally good and intrinsically evil acts can be a helpful starting point, but ultimately it is the actor’s individual culpability that truly matters. When I posted earlier that:

I received the reply that:

While I agree that the quality of being the most Christ like choice is not necessary when trying to objectively determine the morality of the act itself, which is the task at hand in these questions, in reality it is a futile effort to try to objectively judge an act on it’s own in an effort to objectively define what actions are right and wrong; what a person can/must do and what a person can’t/must not do.

Removing the human element from the equation may make for interesting discussions and debates, but the humanity of human acts is essential to determining the moral culpability of an individual.

When approaching morality from a Catholic perspective, trying to judge a human act while ignoring the act’s conformity to the will of God and the teachings and examples given to us by Christ himself seems to be ultimately flawed.

As followers of Christ, I argue that we are not called to the moral minimum; we are called to moral greatness. The bar is sainthood. Everything else falls short.


My intent when using the phrasing of “morality of the act itself” based on the direction of the posts in the thread being concerned with certain acts being evil in once scenario, but not in another, as well as the terminology used in CCC 1749-1761, particularly 1756:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.


I imagine you say this in light of the “structure of train tracks”, where threat is simultaneously directed away from 5 and at 1, thus giving rise to 2 moral objects. Is that your assessment?

Contrast this with the pilot diverting the plane from large city building to small city building to lessen the death toll. He knows he cannot miss both. May he divert?


I would argue that they are different acts. Shooting directly at a person is different than recklessly shooting where a person may be present.

Knowledge changes the nature of the act. This is why we distinguish between murder, manslaughter, and accident. Those are different acts, not different levels of responsibility for the same act.

I would like to hear someone explain why throwing the switch in this situation is an intrinsically evil act, because if it is not evil in and of itself then it is the intent that determines the morality of the act, and in this case the intent is to save five lives.


A good intent cannot make moral an act that is intrinsically evil, but a bad intent can make immoral an act that would otherwise be praiseworthy. In the second case the intent does change the moral nature of the act.


It’s moral object(s) determine this. The question to be answered is whether throwing the switch has 1 or 2 moral objects, and is either evil.

So, given that the actor knows the configuration of tracks and bodies, is the situation:
Moral obj 1 - save 4 lives (good);
Moral obj 2 - take 1 life (bad) - thus intrinsically evil act;


Moral obj - save 4 lives (good).
(Leaving the loss of life to mere consequence)

The “structure” of the trolley - where the tracks “lead directly” to another innocent - is physically mirroring the directness of act and object.


The physical act is the same, but the objects of the act are different. The actor’s knowledge alters the object/objects of the act.

Because the act of throwing the switch contains a moral object (the direct killing of an innocent person) that is intrinsically evil.

The knowledge that the act of throwing the switch will kill the person adds a moral object to the act. This is why an actor’s knowledge is relevant.


“Moral object” is to me an undefined term. Do you mean the objective (intent) behind the act? I need to better understand what is meant here in order to comment.

You too: what do you mean by the “objects of the act”? Do you mean the intended consequences? The foreseeable consequences?


See CCC 1751 & 1755:

1751 The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.

1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”).

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts - such as fornication - that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

It is not just the intended consequences, but all consequences. If you have knowledge of an immoral object of an act, you cannot judge the act as moral because you are only intending the one object and the other object is unintended. If there is an immoral object involved in the act, then the act is rendered immoral, no matter how good your intentions.

1761 There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.


Of course we can’t short change the child. But I don’t think the certainty of death of the child is relevant. It is the “ordering of the act” toward its end that identifies the moral object, not the certainty of that end. [The moral object of the assassin’s act does not depend on the likelihood of death. Firing the sharp-shooter’s rifle is not a lesser evil act if done at 500m than at 100m.]

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