Runaway trolley problem


This is not a question of ‘philosophy’, but of ‘ethics’ (or, if you prefer, ‘moral theology’).

It is meant not to provide a ‘real’ scenario, but to allow us to suss out the grounds upon which we base our moral judgments. As such, it’s useful. Wisdom might be gained with age… but it’s also gained through careful introspection. :wink:


That’s because, in our current culture, most people are ‘consequentialists’ (or even ‘utilitarianists’). The moral teaching of the Church rejects both these approaches.

As others have noted, the ends do not justify the means – one may not kill a person in order to save another.

It’s kinda hard to make that claim when, in fact, what he’s doing is actually actively killing the young man. :wink:

It’s easier to identify an act as “killing a person” when you see it directly (cutting open a healthy young man) rather than indirectly (sending a trolley hurtling into an innocent person).

It’s impermissible in both.


If I am wrong, it was Peter Kreeft that said ethics was a field of study was a branch of philosophy. I understand introspection and appreciate the value of hypothetical situations. I guess my issue is that the only right answer to this questions is, “Depends.” Like most questions presented as dichotomies, there are always more elements than can be garnered in a sentence or two. How many people are on the trolley? Is there a way to derail it? (Usually that is yes) Is the person alone, everyone else being tied down, on the trolley, or non-existent. At least this is not a false dichotomy. It is merely incomplete. So my answer would have to be that it depends on circumstances not present in the scenario.

But no, it is never moral to kill a person directly to save more people.



So your conclusion is not to pull the lever? That is what I lean toward also.


Correct. Catholic moral theology says that one may not choose an evil so that good might result. Choosing to kill an innocent in order to save others isn’t moral. (We could get deep into a discussion of double effect, of course, but that’s a different matter…)


If there’s a third option of jumping in front of the trolley to stop the trolley and save the lives of the others, I find this would be the best option. It is always best to sacrifice ourselves for others, just like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did.


The problem here is with the meaning of ‘choose’. It is one thing to select an evil act when there are moral alternatives, but it is another thing altogether when the ‘choices’ are between bad and worse. One does not ‘choose’ evil in any meaningful sense of that term when one takes the option that results in less evil rather than more.


Actually, the implication of Catholic moral theology is that “choosing the lesser of two evils” is itself an immoral choice. (Catholic moral theology is, if nothing else, consistent. :wink: )


How would that apply to the transplant situation. You are choosing the lesser of two evils by having the one man die so that four may live. OF course, the one man did not want to have his organs removed, but the one man on the track did not want you to pull the lever and kill him. In both cases your are killing one to save four.


There is no evil in an act to reduce the death toll by choosing which track a train should run on. Those who lived did not live because one man died - they lived because the train did not run on their track. The loss of life was a consequence of the action taken, but no one sought it, and in pre-judging the merits of the act, we only need that the balance of consequences is good (as a necessary condition for a good act).

It’s good to save the life of a man with failing organs. We must choose a good means, and alas mutilating the body of another man is not a good means. The good arises directly from the bad.


That’s because the “evil” in question is not in the act itself, but in the consequences. One of the tests for the goodness of a proposed act is we must expect more good than harm to result.


While I understand why you might think the two scenarios you painted rely on the same principles and thus should have the same answer, that’s not so.

In one case, the mutilation and killing is directly intended and thus is utterly impermissible, no matter what great benefit is sought. In the other case, no death is directly intended, but rather “tolerated” - as an unintended consequence - in light of the good balance of outcomes achieved.


By pulling the lever you are choosing to kill one person in order to save four. You are making that choice.
Your intention is to save four in either case.
But in the trolley case you choose to send a trolley on a track which you know will result in the death of the one man. You are thereby stealing his life from him without his consent.

Yes, I think Gorgias is right.


In the trolley scenario, to throw the switch is to murder the one man. Murder is evil. We are forbidden to commit an evil act in hopes of obtaining a good result.
To refuse to throw the switch does not mean that we chose the deaths of the four. We didn’t put anyone on the tracks and we didn’t set the trolley in motion. We are faced with the dilemma of an existing situation and must decide what to do.
We are forbidden to commit an evil act in hopes of obtaining a good result.
Sometimes the only morally permissible choice is to do nothing, even though we know that evil will result.


No. You are choosing an act with a certain number of deaths in the consequences.


No. The act is certainly not murder. The evil in the death of the one lies in the consequences only. No death was directly intended, as is the case in murder. I more fully describe the analysis in an earlier post.


There is one big difference. Slicing a man up and removing his organs is a direct act of murder. It is morally wrong. It is direct killing.

Pulling a lever is a morally neutral action. The result is that a man is killed, but the intent is to save another. So, the principle of double effect should apply.

The doctrine consists of four conditions that must be satisfied before an act is morally permissible:

The nature-of-the-act condition. The action must be either morally good or indifferent.
The means-end condition. The bad effect must not be the means by which one achieves the good effect.
The right-intention condition. The intention must be the achieving of only the good effect, with the bad effect being only an unintended side effect.
The proportionality condition. The bad effect must not be disproportionate to the good effect.

The second one is the difference between the two scenarios. In the surgery, the other patients are actually saved by the harvested organs. In the trolley situation the four on the track are not saved by the fact there is another person on the other track. They would still be safe if no one is on the other track.


Classic mis-use of double effect. @Rau essentially makes the same argument, but without explicitly quoting double effect. You could just as easily claim that “performing surgery is a morally neutral action” or “using a scalpel is a morally neutral action”. The trick (in making this type of claim) is to focus in, so narrowly, on the act, so as to divorce it from its context. “Throwing switch” sounds a lot nicer than “directing train onto track with man tied on rails”.

OK, fine: the ‘good effect’ is “train doesn’t kill people on track A”; the ‘bad effect’ is “train kills a person on track B”. The bad effect is the means by which one achieves the good effect. :wink:

So… by rerouting the train onto track B, you do not intend to doom the person tied to track B?

Here’s where your argument really goes off the rails, so to speak. DIsproportionality is not merely “body count”. Your analysis, which really boils down to “one instead of five,” is utilitarian/consequentialist at its heart. As such, it does not work in the context of Catholic moral theology.

The second one is the difference between the two scenarios. In the surgery, the other patients are actually saved by the harvested organs. In the trolley situation the four on the track are not saved by the fact there is another person on the other track. They would still be safe if no one is on the other track.


The intention of re-routing the train is to save four people. Proof? If there was a third option, or no one was on the track, you would still re-route it.

Second, while proportionality is not merely body count, unless one discounts the value of life, the number of people who dies must matter.

The bottom line is that it is only your opinion that this is a misuse of double effect. I disagree and will not be dissuaded. So get all argumentative over this silly hypothetical if you want. I think it a waste of time. Not everyone will hold the same opinion. Just one more thing. It is polite to acknowledge one’s own opinion in disagreeing so as not to come across as pompous, as in “classic mis-use.” Classic, as in generally accepted? Isn’t that an also a fallacy of some sort, the “everyone knows?”

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