Runaway trolley problem


If it is always and everywhere immoral to commit an act that leads to the death of an innocent person then how is there such a thing as a just war given that innocents are always being killed by specific, intended acts committed by the combatants? The church didn’t condemn bombing in WWII (ignore the specific cases of Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Dresden) where thousands of civilians were killed. If those acts were not intrinsically evil, why is this one?

The knowledge that bombing inside cities will inevitably lead to civilian deaths does not render such bombing inherently immoral. If this is true in the case of hundreds of deaths it is surely also true in the case of one.


Doing something dangerous or involving risk does not necessarily have the moral weight of committing suicide. Doing something that puts others at risk or in danger does not have the same moral weight of deliberately killing them.

I agree, but the object of the assassin’s act are directed at the end of killing people.

A different example: I would not put the same moral weight on the actions of a magician throwing daggers at targets on a spinning wheel, on which an assistant is tied as I would if the magician was throwing daggers directly at the assistant while they sit stationary only 5 feet away in.

In one, the magician is putting the assistant at risk and in danger, but their death is not certain and not the end the magician is aiming for. Though putting the assistant in this situation involves danger and risk, the magician desires for the assistant to remain unharmed and has taken steps (extensive practice) that aim to ensure the survival of the assistant.

In the other, the magician us just trying to kill the assistant.

With the mother/child situation, I wasn’t trying to say that the certainty of death is the deciding factor, I was just trying to provide an example where I could perceive the possibility of the act potentially being a moral good. In many of the imaginable mother/child situations, I don’t see a moral good or moral evil, but rather tragic choices between moral neutrals.


But it is not - I think everyone accepts that there can be acts where the death of innocents are “mere consequences” and not moral objects. The difference lies in whether the act was “ordered” to that death or not. It can be hard to distinguish the cases, for sure.


I addressed this earlier, but basically the concept of just war is predicate on a legitimate authority who is in a position to make prudential judgements on behalf of the common good.

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

  • there must be serious prospects of success;

  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."109

2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.

2314 "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."110 A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes.

2328 The Church and human reason assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflicts. Practices deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes.


Very true. There are so many factors in play that these decisions are extremely difficult.


No. Not “two moral objects”, but rather “one action, with one moral object.”

IIRC, @AveOTheotokos already discussed that situation well. I looked for the original reference to that dilemma, but couldn’t find it in this thread. Refresh my memory, please: what’s the scenario you’re proposing?


Now that is an interesting twist! Can you explain why the ONLY object in the act of throwing the lever is the death?


What if there was a magician on a plane throwing knives at a doctor who is en route to perform emergency surgery to stop the heart of a patient for an undisclosed reason, but unbeknownst to both of them is the fact that the pilot has jumped out of the plane and it is on a crash course with a highly populated area…

You are on the ground with a remote control that can engage the autopilot of the plane, but the autopilot will divert the plane towards a trolley control switch that would be triggered in the crash. triggering the trolley switch will divert a current runaway trolley from a track with 4 innocent people tied to the track to track with only one mass murdering active shooter tied to it.

If the mass shooter dies, his father (who just so happens to be the ruler of the country of Angerstania) will declare war on your country and will order the taking out of your leader, who happens to be your mother who happens to be pregnant. If she dies, you would (because of the rules in your country) be placed in power and responsible for all decisions regarding the war, and would have to determine whether to allow or stop current air strikes taking place in populated cities.

If you do not divert the plane, then the four tied to the track will die, as well as those in the more highly populated area, and the mass shooter on the other track will continue their attack and one of the victims will be the child of the leader of the country of SoMadvania who would declare war on a neighboring country that is an ally.

So the question is, what is the morality of eating 6 doughnuts for breakfast on the morning of these events as opposed to a well balanced breakfast?


No twist. I think I’ve been pretty consistent in making that case.

Simple. The act is explicitly the act of turning the train toward track B. Turning the train toward track B necessarily causes the death of the person tied to that track.

The intent might be to save five other lives, but the act has a clear outcome and therefore, a clear object. You might claim that you don’t want the object… but that doesn’t change the objective consideration. :man_shrugging:


You justify here the claim that the death is a moral object. But you omit mention of the saving nature of the act. The act is EQUALLY inherently ordered to saving 4 lives. Note this goes beyond mere Intention. Turning the tram away from the 4 is inherently ordered to saving them. Why does this rate no mention from you?


I agree. There are two objects involved here, the saving and the killing. The immorality of the one object (killing) is enough to nullify the morality of the act, but the other object (the saving) still remains.

Both the saving and the killing are not merely intentions or consequences, but objects of the act.


Is pulling a trigger on a gun intrinsically evil? If not, then is it OK to pull a trigger on a gun when it is pointed at a lawyer? Is pulling a lever intrinsically evil? If not, is it OK to pull a lever to gas a person locked in a sealed cage? Pulling the lever isn’t wrong, so if the lever is configured to release poison gas in a sealed cage and some innocent person just happens to be there, well it wasn’t intrinsically evil to pull the lever? Was it intrinsically evil for the Nazis to pull the lever releasing gas into a sealed chamber containing 135 Jews? Was it intrinsically evil to pull a lever which will send a trolley on a track to murder an innocent man tied to the track?
The answer I see is that it is murder in all cases and against the commandment Thou shalt not kill. i don’t see where intrinsic or extrinsic should enter into the discussion. You are pulling the lever and as a result an innocent man will be murdered. It is wrong.


Whatever. The principle I know is that a good end does not justify an immoral means. When the immoral means is the murder of an innocent man, then it is wrong, whatever the good end may be.


I cannot remember which of my professors used to say that Church virtue teaching has been held captive to the necessities of enforcing public order (ie Canon Lawyers) for far too many centuries.


How many moral objects are there in lethal self defence?
Only one, defending my family.
Yes there is a second intention (indirect) and a second object of that second intention (the indirect/praetor object). However the indirect (praetor) object is contained/specified in the circumstances font not the object font.


B, may I call you B? In regard to the trolley, at first glance, I saw only the “saving lives” object, while Gorgias saw only the “taking life” object. I subsequently began to entertain 2 objects.

AveO concurs 2 objects. AINg sees murder. Ender sees only a good act.

I note your observation re: self-defense. What say you re: the trolley?


I leave you guys to sort that out - I don’t really believe in armchair ethical scenarios. If its never happened in reality maybe there is an intrinsic reason why it hasn’t!

I simply observe that people often seem to think that complicated scenarios where we must balance goods and evils are always two distinct but related moral acts (one an evil means to the other a good end). But it often makes better sense to seem them as a single moral act with a single moral intention…with a praeter intention “choosing” the evil at the same time. However the latter is not traditionally considered as a separate moral action but subsumed. Just lethal self defence then is a single good moral act of defending my family. Unfortunately it also involved me choosing the death of the attacker - though that was not my primary intention.


Aaaahhh, ok.

Yes, that was my first instinct. “The” moral object was lowering the death toll/saving lives. But the bringing into consideration of a person who was safe and rendering him unsafe (“targeted” in fact) presented difficulty though. Regrettably, neither can I exercise self-defense by inter-posing a passerby between me and the approaching bullet!


Exactly. Thus in the case of the trolley, the death of the one is a consequence of the act, but the act was ordered to the rescue of the five. For the act to be immoral, given that the intent is good, it would have to be intrinsically evil, and I don’t believe there is any way that can be the case.


An object that is intrinsically evil is evil in all circumstances; that is the definition of the term. “Legitimate authority” does not permit acts that are intrinsically evil. If an act can be legitimately committed it cannot be intrinsically evil, for if it is evil it may never be excused.

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