Runaway trolley problem


You know the theory, but you keep repeating that there is no evil moral object because that death was not your Intention!

An act “causing” a death, and being “ordered” to it are not the same thing. Diverting the train from the 5 is - by virtue of the structure of the problem - diverting the train into the 1. You call the first the moral object. Earlier in the thread, Gorgias called the 2nd the moral object. What is the difference?

Yet it does just that!


He seems to be saying no more than this: if we are dealing with a moral act of abortion, then the abortion is intrinsically evil due to its object.

You seem to be trying to say the reverse: if its choosing to kill a foetus then it must be abortion and therefore a deliberate and intrinsically evil choosing.

But that is exactly what we do not know either here or in the case of the trolley.

Simply in some way choosing to kill a man is not murder. It may be, it may be not.

Simply calling the choice of a physical thing (eg killing a baby) “abortion” does not prove direct deliberation.

That is the very thing we seek to establish.
To choose to throw the track switch which is ordered to a killing either way does not prove murder. Is the choice direct is the issue. This cannot be proven by saying “murder” … it simply begs the question.


What is the proximate end of the operation? Is it the death of the baby? If so the act would be evil, but if the PE is to restore the mother’s health then the object is moral, and the act is acceptable.

Absolutely true, because while we can often judge the moral nature of an act we cannot always do so. The case of killing in self defense would be one such action where judging its moral nature might be impossible (for us).

But you’ve omitted the key qualifier here: was that the intent? Was the termination an end, either proximate or final? It is the intentional nature of the termination that determines its moral quality.


Ill leave it to others to explain.


The second font of a moral act is the intention. That is a separate concept from the first font, which is the object, but the object is defined as “the proximate end” of the act. An end, however, is also intended. It is this sense to which I refer.

The proximate end of the action of throwing the switch (the object) is to direct the trolley away from the five. The reason I do that (the intent) is to save their lives.

Yes it is, but because that is a consequence of the act does not mean the act was ordered to that end. On the other hand I don’t really know what you mean by “ordered to”.

I’m using the order the catechism uses.

1750 The morality of human acts depends on:
- the object chosen;
- the end in view or the intention;
- the circumstances of the action.

The consequence of the act is that the trolley is directed at the one, but that was no part of the proximate end (the object) or the final end (the intent). It does have that result but the result is not intended. It is a consequence (font 3), but no part of fonts 1 or 2.


It’s the very same act you would choose were killing the 1 your “Intention”. We agree it is not your Intention to kill one, but you choose an act whose inherent end (by virtue of the structure of the problem) is to kill the 1. The sense in which its end is to save the 5 is exactly the same sense in which it is to kill the 1. [I would be delighted it you could find the error in this observation.]

You do not need to feel good about (desire) the death of the 1 innocent to be culpable for it. Choosing an act which is inherently ordered to that end is enough to condemn the act.

You assert the death of the 1 is not a proximate end (not a moral object), but give no explanation for how you come to that conclusion. Neither Intentions nor Consequences are in debate. Our Intention is only to save, and the Consequences include saving and losing lives. Only the moral object(s) are in debate. Here is some discussion on Moral Objects, also from Mr Conte. [I can’t find any easily accessible material on same topic from others.]
Conte - Basic Structure of the Moral Object

NB: He numbers the fonts 1 (Intention), 2 (Moral Object), 3 (Consequences).

An extract:

"The object of the act is an end toward which the particular act is inherently ordered. But the person cannot choose the nature or the object of the act directly; he can only choose the concrete act. The nature and object are inherent to that chosen particular act.
If you wish to choose a particular moral object, you must choose an act inherently ordered to that end. If you choose an act inherently ordered toward that end, you are in fact necessarily also choosing that object, at least implicitly. And this choice is intentional; it is a knowing and deliberate exercise of reason and free will. Whoever says otherwise, denies the objective morality of human acts."


Now you’ve introduced another undefined term: inherent end, and while the acts are superficially the same in that we would see the person do exactly the same thing both if he intended to save the five and if he intended to kill the one, in fact the objects of the acts are different because the proximate ends are different. In one case the PE would be to direct the trolley away from something while in the other case it would be to direct the trolley toward something. Those are different objects.

Only if you believe that aiming a trolley at something and aiming it away from something are the same can you believe that the (proximate) ends are the same.

I think you have here conflated the consequence with the proximate end (the object). Whether there was or was not a person on the second track the bystander’s object would be the same: to direct the trolley away from the five. The same object cannot be moral in one case and immoral in the other.

Death is a consequence of the act. It is not the proximate end even of the act of redirecting the trolley with the intent to kill the one. In that case the proximate end (the object) is to direct the trolley at the person, the intent is to kill him, and the consequence is he is run over by the trolley and dies.

Why do we need Conte’s explanations when we have JPII’s (VS #76-83)?


It means

  • proximate end;
  • the end to which an act is inherently ordered;
  • or equivalent words.

To gain traction, you need to explain how the object of the act is one but not the other, according to the Intention of the actor.

Given there are 2 distinct somethings, and given the structure of the railway tracks (a “Y” intersection), does not the act of switching the tracks in the circumstances at hand have 2 proximate ends?

Huh? That’s an act, not an end. The Moral Object is a noun - something to which the act is inherently ordered. The moral object of an abortion is not “to send a chemical into the fetus”. It is “the deprivation of life from an innocent”.

There is no conflict in what they say (and Conte is an avid ‘quoter’ of JP2 from what I’ve read of his), but Conte provides much more extensive elucidation. I appreciate you may judge him to be in error, and JPII simply to not have explicated the same details as Conte.


As above it is unclear what people mean by PE and I would prefer not to buy into that terminology accordingly.

Of course there is often some form of evil intent in a PODE complex moral act.
The issue is which is primary and which is praetor. Defining of moral objects does not always clarify that.
Which is why people so often disagree over PODE type scenarios.


That’s not correct. Circumstances can change the moral goodness of an act. Circumstances cannot change the moral object of the act.

Therefore, if an aspect of the act itself is relegated to circumstantial status but that aspect changes the species of the act then that aspect is not circumstantial but integral to the moral object. The death of an innocent person is rarely, if ever, merely a circumstance.

Circumstances, including consequences, must also be good to determine the act morally good. Circumstances per se cannot change an act that is evil in its object or intention into a morally good act but evil circumstances can change an act that is good in its object and intent into an immoral act.


A proposed parallel moral exercise to the trolley case:

You see a man tying and blindfolding four innocent persons standing them up against a wall.

The man picks up, chambers a round and aims a firearm at the four.

You hold a high powered rifle at a distance. A fifth innocent person stands between you and the man about to kill the four. You raise your weapon. The shot you could take must go through the innocent person standing in your sight line. The caliber of your weapon is certain to kill that innocent person before killing the gunman in the distance.

May you pull the trigger (throw the switch)?

If you say the person may not “pull the trigger” then on what different moral basis do you justify “throwing the switch”?


Missed this reply earlier.

The bystander is akin to the surgeon. The “switch” is akin to the “scalpel.” The bystander may not move the switch if that movement kills an innocent. The surgeon may not move the scalpel if that movement kills an innocent. See tubal ectopic pregnancy vs. hepatic pregnancy.


I will ask again: what do you see as the proximate end of throwing the switch?

Be careful with “intention”; it can mean two things: either the second font of the act, or the proximate end of the object. If you mean the latter then it would seem obvious that different proximate ends would be different objects.

In both the case where the intention is to save the five, and the case where the intention is to kill the one, the physical action is identical: the switch is thrown. The consequences are also identical: one person dies, five are saved. The question is: are the objects of both acts the same? Again, this statement from JPII:

By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order…

You cannot describe the objects of the two acts as being the same simply because the physical action is identical. You must account for the the proximate end (“that object is the proximate end”). Now an end relates to an objective - an intention. What is the immediate objective of the person who throws the switch to save the five? It is to redirect the trolley away from the five. The proximate end - the immediate objective - of the person who wants to kill the one is to redirect the trolley at that person. The visible actions are the same, but the objects are very different

It is simple enough to rephrase it: the object, the proximate end, the reason for throwing the switch, is to get the trolley directed at the person on the track (in one case), and to get it directed away from the five (in the second case).

Nor do I think the object is “something to which the act is inherently ordered” because this refers to “a process or an event of the merely physical order”, which JPII explicitly stated was not the object of an act.


How do we understand a term like “the object of an act” without defining it? I am using the term “proximate end” as I understand JPII to use the term:

“By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person.

People act for a reason, to achieve a specific goal, and while there may be several ends in mind, the intended, immediate effect of an act would seem to be its object.

I don’t think so. PODE does not allow the evil to be intended, but only recognized as inevitable and accepted.


“The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” (Veritatis Splendor, #77)

Death is always a circumstance because it is always a consequence of an event or series of events, and consequences are part of the circumstances.

I don’t think so. See VS 77 above as well as the catechism.

1754 Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves…


The problem inherent in your understanding then is a realistic definition of willing. Yours appears binary where life appears in varying degrees most would also call willing. Scholastic Latin has at least four different technical words for willing and “intent” is only one of them.


Praetor intentions also have objects. By going with your personal view that choosing objects only involve primary deliberate intents I would concede your point that direct intent (and hence intrinsic moral evil) can be identified merely by perceiving certain physical objects.

Killing a man in self defence is often a form of knowing “choice”. Killing an embryo in ectopic surgery likewise.


My post and your citation from VS are identities. Do you see a contradiction?

Circumstances “stand around” the act and give context to the act. Foreseeable consequences may be circumstantial if, and only if, the consequences do not change the moral object or are in the pre-moral order.

The evaluation of the consequences of the action, based on the proportion between the act and its effects and between the effects themselves, would regard only the pre-moral order. VS 75

I think so. Go one more down in catechism:

1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together.


It is disturbing to be so inept in presenting my arguments that my position can be so misunderstood. This is actually the opposite of my view. Very often nothing regarding intent (proximate or final) can be identified by observation of the physical action. We can know for sure what a person has done, but more often than not we have no clue as to why he has done it beyond pure speculation.


I think youve missed my point.

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