Runaway trolley problem


The intent (end that motivates) of pulling the lever was not killing but the act by its very nature turns a tram toward an innocent - it can’t be any more directed, any more “ordered” toward death than that.

The procedure to heal the mother is not directed to harming the child. The radiation is focused on her tumor. The drug, designed to treat her condition, is placed in her blood stream. The knife is applied to the part of her body that is diseased or which threatens to fail.


What causes double effect to give a “fail” to the trolley act is its most subtle and most overlooked (and unhelpful) requirement - that the act itself not be evil. So the task remains one of identifying the moral object(s). Ender correctly identifies one, and so does Gorgias. You just need to combine your answers and we’d have agreement and a complete answer.


Which is why PODE arguments always include a proportionality criterion.

  1. Noone denies complex scenarios involve multiple choices some of which involve choosing physical evils, even killing.
  2. Catholic moral theology has never denied that some of these scenarios can be viewed as a single moral action which must mean it is considered a single overarching moral act.
  3. That must therefore mean there is a primary choice/intent which orders all the other secondary decisions (some of which may well know and intend physical evil) and is itself either wholly good or wholly bad. It must be good.
  4. There will likewise be a variety of moral objects to match these primary or secondary choices.
  5. The overarching object of the primary overarching intent must on a proportionality weighing of all objects basis be more ordered than disordered I would think.
  6. The true object of such an act is that of the primary intent. All secondary objects of secondary intents amount to circumstances or foreseen consequences.

I think this summarises Aquinad at least.


That’s Aquinas’s dad, right? :wink:


You direct the trolley to run over and murder an innocent person.


That’s not right. Catholic teaching has been that it is wrong to drop hydrogen bombs on cities, even if your primary intent is to end a war and save lives.


You may well be right given the example given (though I believe it is in fact still disputed today amongst Catholics re Nagasaki and Hiroshima).

Regardless, I think you have confused the philosophical principle of the PODE with the moral theology of “praeter intention” based on the Church’s adoption of Aquinas’s philosophy of man and human cognition/appetite.

While the Catholic PODE assumes that praeter intention is involved in PODE these are two different areas of complex and subtle moral theology.

I am simply observing what I think is an accurate summary of the PI moral theology according to Aquinas and mainstream Catholic teaching. I do not believe my elucidation is mistaken but you are welcome to quote respected sources if you think I am.


What I know is that CAF had a file on why it was morally wrong to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. What I know further is that those who defend this action say that the primary intention was to save lives.


I find it difficult to understand why you would use the personal views of a little known public Catholic lay speaker to settle this complex moral matter for you.

However I do personally hold a similar position myself - though (as the author also astutely observes) US citizens have a blind spot on the matter for obvious reasons.


It is simple really. You said:

The true object of such an act is that of the primary intent
Catholic teaching is that it was immoral to drop the atom bomb on Japan. But those who defend the action say that the primary intent was good, namely the shortening of the war and the saving of lives. The primary intent did not override the immorality of the act.


I am trying to understand why you quote a little known lay public speaker to demonstrate the above is official Catholic teaching.

I don’t believe the Church takes a categorical position on actual major world events. I may be mistaken.
Do you have an official, Magisterial quote perhaps which would be more credible than this?


So since he is a little known public lay speaker, you disagree with his argument and your position is that it was moral to use an atomic bomb against Japan in WWII because the intention was to save lives?


You’re right, this does not settle the matter. But AINg probably takes the person’s analysis as reflective of his own, thus offers it in exposition thereof.

I would find it hard to apply the principles and come to a different view.

Has the Church pronounced specifically on that event?


I do not find it credible that it is clearly Church Teaching simply because he believes so that is all.


Indeed, as it is also mine by and large.
However it is a rather large leap to go from there to:

Catholic teaching has been that it is wrong to drop hydrogen bombs on cities.

Nor do I see how the above, which I agree with regardless of what the Church has or has not said on the matter, logically contradict’s what I know the Church does accept re “indirect intention”. Namely:

The true object of such an act is that of the primary intent.


If this was true then the mother’s operation would be immoral, and just wars would be impossible. This is not what the church teaches.

How is it that throwing the switch is a direct cause of death but the operation is not? If the person was rescued from the track, or if the trolley was stopped or diverted the death would not occur. The trolley case is not the same as shooting someone any more than the operation is a case of abortion.

While it is always a tragedy when an innocent person is killed it is not always a sin to commit an act that will inevitably lead to such a death.

“The good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the evil effect.” (Catholicism & Ethics)

It is not consequentialism to compare the good and bad effects and determine - in this case by a 5 to 1 margin - that the good outweighs the bad.


PODE acknowledges that some acts have both a positive and a negative effect. In all the cases we’ve discussed here the negative effect is an unwanted death. The question is whether that death can justifiably be described as a murder.

Again, in all the cases we’ve raised the death comes as a direct result of the act even though the act was not directed toward that death. The child dies as a direct result of the operation; untold civilians died as a direct result of the Allied bombing of (e.g.) Schweinfurt; the person tied to the tracks dies as a direct result of the switch being thrown. I don’t see the distinction being made here.

None of the actions in the above scenarios is directed at harm, yet harm - death - is the inevitable consequence in all of them.

Perhaps the case of the bombing is clearer since it is more analogous to the trolley scenario. The same bombs that were dropped in WWII to destroy the ball bearing factory also destroyed half the city, and very likely thousands of civilians. Again, ignoring special cases like Hiroshima, and Tokyo, generally the bombing and shelling of cities that had military significance was not deemed immoral. So: make the case that the civilian deaths were murders, because if you can’t do that then there is no case to be made that throwing the switch was a murderous action.


This is really not a fair description of either the situation or the action. It is more accurate to say that - by your definition - you have the choice of participating in the murder of five or the murder of one. If you fail to lift a finger to save a life in a case where you could easily do so you are responsible for that death.


Indeed, when an indirect intention is viable, then proportionality arguments are acceptable and grave disorders, including death, may be chosen by the second praeter intention.
Choosing to kill by means of an indirect intention by definition cannot be murder. Murder requires a direct intention.

The trolley situation reasonably elicits a split intention. The proportionality criterion establishes which is objectively the primary intention, saving the 5.

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