Runaway trolley problem


Ah, so if someone came out of the confessional booth, and as such they are “saved” at the moment, you could just shoot them or allow them to die - to make sure that they get to heaven. Or act like the “glorious” conquistadores did, by taking the newborn kids of the natives, baptize them, and then smashing their heads to the nearest stone to send them “directly” to heaven.

And, of course, potentials do not count. Not that I would wish it unto you, but if you say that you would allow your child to die instead of the ones who placed him there… let me just say, that I do not believe you. So, in my opinion, you are full of that proverbial substance. :slight_smile:


In the general sense, rather than describe the moral object as “a deliberately willed end,” the moral object is best described as “the end of a deliberately willed act” or “the end of an act proceeding from a deliberate will.” This distinction more clearly separates the object font from the intention font. In the objective font, it is the act that is willed. In the subjective font, it is the end that is primarily willed.

In the trolley exercise, the moral object then can be described as “deliberately throwing the switch foreseeing the killing of an innocent person and the saving of four innocent persons.”


Fair enough, but it is equally fair to point out that pretty much the entirety of Conte’s argument is just that: his assertion.

Assertion: There is one object (one proximate end).
The words the catechism uses supports this:
1750 The morality of human acts (plural) depends on:
- the object (singular) chosen;
And this is the same way JPII used the terms in Veritatis Splendor:
The object (singular) of the deliberate act (Heading for section 76)

I don’t have to know what lightening is to know it is not sparks from Thor’s hammer. If there is only one object then it is more reasonable to believe that the object pertains to the intended end, not the accidental one.

This conclusion baffles me. Both choices save lives (a life); both choices lead to the loss of life. Both choices are deliberate. What is the moral object of not throwing the switch?


Like BlackFriar, I too would like to see a reference for this. I’ve never heard this and I’ve yet to find it during my Internet search efforts.


Continued - Conte’s argume… assertions

The act of throwing the switch has the good intention to save the lives of four innocent people, and has the good moral object of refraining from an intrinsically evil act (willingly letting people die). My assertion seems more supportable than his.
we are said to expose a person to danger if we do not protect him. (Aquinas ST I-II 79, 1ad1)

I think Conte’s remote/proximate distinction is false. Both consequences flow directly from the same act, and this is true whether the switch is thrown or not.

[quote]The situation which endangers their lives is not of your making, so the consequences of their deaths is reduced in moral weight, by being removed from your act.[quote]
This assumes that if a person is in mortal danger through no fault of our own, and we decline to save him, this is a lesser sin than him dying directly at our hand. This is the major assumption I challenge. How different is our moral responsibility in the case where we throw an infant into a pool, and where he falls in and we refuse to lift him out?

“The font of consequences is actually good.” Such conclusions are the inevitable byproduct of rationalizations.

Not if it is demonstrated that, whatever it is, there is only one.


The bystander’s foreseeable consequences are: no action, four die; act, only one dies. The choices are the same.

No, you have incorrectly tried to categorize the act is evil. Deciding this question is the point of the argument. Simply asserting it is or isn’t moral isn’t useful.

Ends pertain to intentions; what is foreseen is a consequence.

This is wrong; Aquinas flatly contradicts it.
Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention.

I was the first to cite this particular section, so yes, I am familiar with what it says. The key point here is that one “must have the possibility of avoiding” the bad effect. Given that someone is going to die no matter what I do, there is no possibility of avoiding it.

All of this reduces to the belief that doing nothing absolves one of responsibility for whatever happens as a result of that inaction. This position is not supportable.


According to this definition how can you say the object of throwing the switch is not “saving four lives”? Saving their lives is clearly the “deliberately willed end”. Why do you insist that the object is the death of the one on the other track since clearly that end is not willed?

This cannot be the object of any act since it contains a consequence (which is not an end) and is not willed. An object is a “proximate end”, and the death of the one is not an end at all. Foreseeing a consequence and willing it are totally different.


Not so, the choices are morally different. The surgeon’s act, unlike the bystander’s act, does not put into lethal peril an innocent person who would otherwise live. Who has a moral right to endanger the life of an innocent? Answer: No one.

There you go again, confusing the fonts. I did not simply assert; I argued that because the act is evil in its object the act is immoral.

Ends pertain to the font of intention but not exclusively. The object font describes the ends that the act of a deliberate will foresees.

You left out this important last sentence in your quote. Why? I added this last sentence in a subsequent post to correct your argument that 1737 supports you conclusion that the bystander may throw the switch.

How does not throwing the switch absolutely avoid the bad effect?

No, the choice is one of doing evil in order that good may come of it. That position is unsupportable in Catholic moral teaching. Only the “consequentialist” focuses on ends and disregards the object of the act as determining the act’s morality.


How can you so easily dismiss that throwing the switch kills an innocent person and relegate this evil event as a mere consequence belonging only to the circumstantial font?

Remember, properly described, the object of an act applies independent of any particular actor – it objectively states the ends that any and all actors foresee. The intention font is the subjective font – what does this particular actor will as the primary goal? Any primary goals in the intention font must be first stated as one of the foreseeable ends in the object font.

Your incorrect description of the object – relegating this foreseeable event (kills an innocent person) to the circumstantial font (which cannot change the moral species of an act) – would allow a bystander to will the death of the innocent person. When confronted, the bystander would argue that his evil will is not immoral because Ender says the death of that innocent person is, well, a mere consequence.


This reinforces my contention that the “do nothing” position relies on the belief that taking no action absolves one of the consequences of that choice. It doesn’t. You are responsible for the consequences of your choice, whether that choice be taking an overt act or sitting on your hands.

This line of thinking would allow euthanasia. The fetus will surely die at some unknown point in the future, as would a person in the last weeks of life. That said, we are no more justified in ending the elderly person’s life “because he’s going to die anyway” than we are in terminating the life of a fetus that can only survive a week or two more. You cannot justify the one without justifying the other.


That is the way PODE works: "The good must be willed, the evil merely allowed or tolerated."

No, this is incorrect. “…that object is the proximate end” (JPII). The object is the proximate end. It is singular and clearly does not apply to all of the objectives, let alone all of the consequences.

This is spectacularly wrong. You continue to mix the consequences with the other fonts. Previously it was with the object, now it is with the intent. This is why I keep citing Aquinas, because his words directly refute your assertion.
Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention.

Again you conflate intent with consequence. You insist that if a person knows that something bad will happen as a result of his act then that is part of his intent. PODE is an explicit rejection of this position. Just because an actor knows his act will contain a bad (as well as a good) outcome does not mean the bad effect was intended.

And of course one may not will the death of an innocent person. One can, however, foresee that his death will inevitably follow from one’s action, and not (necessarily) be responsible for it precisely because it was not willed.


Read Romans 3:8 and 6:1. “Do nothing” instead of “doing evil” is always required.

As it is an error to dismiss the killing of an innocent as a a foreseeable end in the object in the trolley exercise so also is it an error to dismiss the saving of the mother’s life in a tubal pregnancy exercise. The surgeon may not “throw the scalpel” into the innocent child just as the bystander may not “throw the switch.”

You evaded taking a position to the trolley parallel exercise, I think, because you did not want to “pull the trigger” but you would “throw the switch.” Please explain: How do you justify not “pulling the trigger” and still “throwing the switch”?


First things, first. The first principle is: “The act must be good.”

You misinterpret JP II. That there is a proximate end does not exclude the existence of other ends in the object. One may only dismiss as an end that end which is accidental to the act. However, the death of the innocent is per se the terminus of this act. Absent the act, the innocent person survives the moving trolley.

_> One and the same act … can be ordained to several remote ends. … For a movement does not receive its species from that which is its terminus accidentally, but only from that which is its per se terminus._S.T. I-II, 1, 3, ad 3.


I think, rather, it is you, friend who confuses the fonts.


It is not accidental, it is inherent to the act chosen. Assertion: there can be more than one object.

I think I quoted Conte’s answer to this.


The act requires better definition to answer that question.

They are inevitably personal judgement.

You’ve asserted, not demonstrated. I have done the same re multiple moral objects. Define moral object: The end inherent to the act. I cannot see any logic to conclude that an act may only have one inherent end in terms of morality.


So the terrorist who tells you to flick the switch to do some evil or else he will do another evil causes you to be responsible for his evil if you don’t comply? I think not.

Subject to the evil not being in the object!!! In the PODE, the act must itself be good - no evil moral object(s).


Since this is the point we’re trying to reconcile you cannot simply assume it.

There may be other ends, which would be related to the intent, but there can only be one proximate end. (See the last comment in this post).

“Accidental” does not mean “accidental to the act”, it means “accidental to the intent”, that is, unintended.

Yes, one act can have several ends, but one object cannot since it is by definition the sole proximate end.

How does this not prove my point? The movement (act) has a per se terminus (life for the four) and an accidental terminus (death of the one). Given that the “movement” receives its species from the former, and (explicitly) not the latter, the moral species of the act does not flow from the accidental (unintended) consequence.

Now that I have looked up this reference it appears you omitted a rather significant point, which is this:

One and the same act, in so far as it proceeds once from the agent, is ordained to but one proximate end

And there it is. An act is “ordained to but one proximate end.” This confirms what I have been claiming.


An accidental end simply means that it was unintended. It doesn’t mean it was an unanticipated consequence.

Aquinas differs:

One and the same act, in so far as it proceeds once from the agent, is ordained to but one proximate end.

Remember, the proximate end is the object.


Both of those are the per se terminus, and the actor’s intentions have no bearing on that. The act chosen is the determining factor - what is inherent to the act?

The act chosen is equally well aimed at killing one as it is at saving four.

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