Runaway trolley problem


That’s not actually my argument. You are faced with a choice, and your choice will determine whether one person dies or four people die. As a direct result of whatever you choose to do, someone will die. The argument I find unconvincing is that responsibility accrues to only one of those choices.

This, though, is where we obviously differ: that not acting absolves one of the responsibility for what occurs as a result of that non-action. Take the situation with the infant in the pool. Is your non-action there not inherently ordered to the death of the child? Again, I think there is a problem with terms that will not be cleared up until you define what you mean by them.

What does “inherently ordered to” something mean?


The use of the adjectives “proximate,” “ultimate,” and “direct” as descriptive and discriminating of the ends can be, I grant, confusing.

The intention of an act is dependent on the object of the act. That is, it is impossible for any actor to intend an end not foreseen in the object of the same act. For instance, having described the object of the act as “throwing the switch to kill one and save four,” one could not then claim the intention as “derailing the trolley.” The intention always resides somewhere in the object as the first goal of the actor.

1752 … The end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action.

One may apply the PODE to the trolley exercise but since the act violates the first rule of the PODE, an act evil in its object is never permitted, the conclusion remains the same – the act is immoral.

We agree the intent is good and the proportionality of effects is good. Our disagreement distills then to the proper understanding of the act’s object.

Is the killing of an innocent person foreseen? Yes. Is the act the means by which the one innocent dies? Yes.

> 1753 … The end [intent] does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation.

To argue that the object of this act “throwing the switch that directs the trolley to kill an innocent person” is somehow different than “pulling the trigger that directs a bullet to kill an innocent person” is, I think, without merit.


I copied this comment from the other thread since you said the discussion really belonged here.

Again, this is a problem of terminology. You say the bystander “targets” the person on the track, but that is obviously not his intention. He is redirecting the trolley away from the four. As a result of that act, the one person on the other track will die. The doctor is operating to save the mother’s life. As an inevitable result of that act, the fetus will die. The bystander no more intends to cause death than does the doctor, but in both cases death comes as a direct result of their acts.

“Target” implies intent. There is no intent to kill involved in either case.


The trolley is akin to the scalpel. Both trolley and scalpel can be the direct cause of death. If the surgeon allowed his hand so as to move the scalpel into the fetus causing its death then he would be as guilty as the bystander whose hand throws the switch so as to direct the trolley into the innocent person causing his death.


That I cannot intend what I cannot foresee does not mean that I do intend all that I can foresee.

You might just as well define the object as murdering the one person on the track; the conclusion is contained in your definition. I defined the object as “redirecting the trolley away from the four”. It would be exactly the same object if there was no one on the other track. Once again, that he knows something bad will happen does not mean that he intends for it to happen.

If the exact same action is performed whether or not there is a person on the second track, but the act is good where no one is there, then the object cannot be intrinsically evil.

These conditions apply exactly the same in the case of the operation.

“Condemned” includes intent. There is no evil intent involved in the trolley case.

Once again, your conclusion is contained in your definition of the situation. The switch is not thrown to direct the trolley at the innocent person. That is the inevitable result of the act, but it is no part of the intent, just as aborting the fetus is no part of the doctor’s intent in performing a life saving operation on the mother, even though the result is just as inevitable.

Because the doctor operates on the mother the fetus will die, and die as a direct result of that operation. This result is foreseen yet the operation proceeds - and the church accepts it as a classic example of PODE. There is no way to frame the trolley problem such that it is materially different than the operation.


No, my conclusion follows from the fact that the act is intrinsically evil.

Perhaps a new angle will drive out the inherent evil in throwing the switch.

The deranged person who tied the people to the tracks gave the one tied to the spur a gun. The bystander puts his hands on the switch. Is the innocent person morally permitted to shoot the bystander?

If you say “Yes” then the bystander is an unjust aggressor.


Except that is the point we’re trying to determine. Your assertion is no more convincing than my saying the act is not intrinsically evil. Those are assertions, not arguments. What makes the act intrinsically evil in a way that the operation is not?

This is an interesting question, but it is a different one, and I don’t agree that we are not allowed to protect ourselves from unintended threats. If a person threatens our life are we allowed to defend ourselves only if the threat is deliberate? The law that allows me to defend my own life is not conditioned by the nature of the threat.


No, I think that the nature of the threat most certainly determines the morality of a defensive act, especially lethal defense. For instance, the convicted criminal is not permitted to kill his executioner. The gangster in the act of robbery is not permitted to kill the guard who points his gun at the gangster.

Unjust aggressors, as exemplified above, are not unjust in their person but in their act. Therefore, if you permit the innocent one to defend his life by shooting the bystander then you admit the bystander’s act, throwing the switch, is necessarily unjust.


I think it admits that a court may determine objective morality from the perspective of the acting person without necessarily applying same conclusions about switchthrowers to the non gun scenario.

Two countries both believe a border plane incident is an act of aggression. Generals on both sides order their plane to take out the other plane.
What is the objective situation…can one plane be both innocent victim and unjust aggressor at the same time? If so why not the switchman.

Is it objectively possible for both the Switchman to morally switch and the spur track gunman to morally shoot?

In short re the “objectivity” of complex moral scenarios … do we seek to determine a single overarching one…or is the best we can hope for simply that of the opposing sides from their own perspective. And sometimes those two opposing sub scenarios may not always objectively agree.


Please, stay within the bounds of the question. No one has suggested that someone who unjustly initiates a threat is justified in shooting say, a policeman. The entire question is about what constitutes justifiable defense and, specifically, whether the threat to someone’s life must be intentional. At least address the question being discussed. What citation supports your contention that I may defend my life only when the threat to it is intended?

Since I do not believe someone is prohibited from lawfully acting in defense of his own life, I see no conflict here, and the fact that I would allow the person on the track to shoot the bystander in no way suggests that the bystander’s act is unjust.


And I find it obvious that I cannot be responsible for what I did not cause when no permissible act exists to stop it. :man_shrugging:

It can only be sinful to not act when we are morally required to act. I’m contending we are not morally required to act in the trolley because that act is sinful. Were there no one on the other track, we would be required to throw the lever.


I have several times explained the equivalence of the act as both a saving act and a condemning act - it no less targets a death than it does saving life; The only difference was the desire of the one acting (who would surely not have acted were her son the one tied upon the other track) who takes the view that 1 death is better than 3, no matter how brought about.

The difference is clear! The surgeon operates on (or otherwise treats) the mother by way of a procedure that it no directed to the child’s harm (even if that is ultimately, indirectly, likely). Is there any moral difference in these two way of treating ectopic pregnancy:

  1. Remove the tube section prior to it rupturing (which rupturing would lead to mother’s death);
  2. Inject a drug that kills the child; wait for natural processes to bring about resolution of mother’s condition.
    In one case, the moral object is evil, in the other it is not. The child still died.

The ‘targeting’ is characteristic of the act.


If the end is in the object, then you intend it (at least as means) - which is the case for chemical injection to ‘treat’ ectopic pregnancy.


Not up for this @Rau?


@Rau nor this? …


If I am targeted by an assassin’s act, and I pull you - an idle stranger - between me and the approaching bullet, are you not presumed innocent despite your presence and capacity to save me? Why should I conclude the stranger tied to the track threatens anyone, let alone is not innocent in so doing?

Certainly without personal fault. Passively? You mean just because he exists? Please let us know what you have in mind.


O_mlly’s question is a good one but also straightforward to answer. Of course the one on the track may act to stop the one at the lever from killing him. He may also (should the whole of the situation be known to him) do nothing for the good of the four.

I’m not so sure about that. If 5 of you are in a lifeboat that will sink (because it copes only with 4), may you (or any one of the 5) shoot someone and throw them overboard? No. Because the actions of the others in desiring to remain are not inherently unjust. You all have a problem.

What threat do you imagine? The mere presence of others in the lifeboat? Or is someone about to plunge a knife into your heart while they sleepwalk? These are different. And while the bystander contemplating throwing the lever has no wish to see the one on the track dead, his act in throwing the switch is a deliberate choice which the one lying on the track is entitled to view accordingly.


A three your old approaching checkpoint Charlie with explosives.
300,000 non combatants at Hiroshima.


I thought I just did?? The one refers to the one tied to the track initially safe, though bound, doesn’t it?? If you have something to contribute - how about you just put it out there. I’m guessing at your meaning.


Here’s one asking more from the person w the lever. The one person is your son. Say the four ppl are healthy… I’m not sure if a similar scenario was Real but, A bridge operator had to raise the bridge to let a ship go under. His 8 yo son went to bridge w his dad. His Dad was ready to raise bridge and saw son was playing on mechanism that raised the bridge. If he doesn’t raise bridge, to save his son, the ship will crash killing all on board. If he raises bridge, his son will die. There could be a third circumstance. I’m making this up now. The ship would be damaged. The ppl on ship might get hurt. Some could swim. Crashing into a bridge will cost a lot of money. Save son, rush back, raise bridge, freeing damaged ship… HMMM.
Triage!!! 4 ppl needing organs will die. They need a dead donor. None available. Young man is alive (non-issue). Leave train to kill dying 4 ppl. It will be faster and better to die quick.Death is not bad. SUFFERING IS!
Oh yes,discipline your kid for being on gears.
Pray for hurt and dying.
In Christ’s love.
Thank God we don’t have to face that scenario.

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