Runaway trolley problem


It seems clear to me that our disagreement is over the proper way to characterize the act of throwing the switch, so let me see if I understand your position. Because throwing the switch directs the trolley at another person and leads inexorably to his death, the act is intrinsically evil. Is that accurate?


Has it taken 600 posts to come to this conlusion.
This has always been the heart of the problem and the central issue from the start.
But like pulling the trigger of a gun, we need to look at many other things to make sense of it.

And at least with switching it is certain someone will die either way. With guns it is not always certain that the defender will die if he doesnt.

That suggests the switching is less morally fraught at an objective level. It becomes a decision of proportionality as with limited lifeboats on a sinking ship. Children and women first.

Rau suggests there should be no marshalling.
First come is best dressed.
To decide who goes in the boat is the same as directly killing innocent males who were not allotted by nature to die.

Yet we are allowed to intervene in nature re ectopic pregnancies.

I cannot find a consistent principled analysis in Raus approach that makes sense of all these examples.


If we accept that this always and everywhere necessitates the embryo be removed with it then…is the death of the embryo the only means to saving the mother in these procedures?
That sounds “inherent” not “accidental”.


This is an assertion not based on anything the church has said, or at least you have not provided a citation to support your claim. Not surprisingly, I disagree, and I think @Rau agrees with me on this one.

We’ll see…


The death of the embryo is consequence though not moral object because the act was a proper treatment of the Mother and directed solely at the mother’s body. Some theologians go further and argue that a procedure to remove / relocate the embryo to her proper place could also be moral (though also expected to cause death).


What is the point of all the abstract phrases and specially chosen words if clear ordinary questions cannot be answered by your analysis.

  1. is the death of the embryo the only means to saving the mother in these procedures?
  2. Is that death then “inherent” or “accidental” to the procedure?

A simple yes or no followed by commentary would seem reasonable.


I suggest no such thing. You drawing a conclusion is not the same as me suggesting it.

Allocating spots in a lifeboat (“marshaling”) is not the same as discovering a boat is overloaded and deciding to shoot someone and toss them overboard.

You are welcome to contribute one.


This is not a courtroom and you are not the judge. I will decide when yes/no responses are in order when I post and you may do the same when you post.

And please feel free to contribute principled analyses to the thread.


I’ve responded to a few question on self-defence from Black F above, and I respond to o_mlly on the question of when one can defend oneself just below.


Of course not in the surprsingly defensive manner you have reacted.
But we are all weighing and judging one anothers perceptions, logical inferences, consistencies, understanding of sources, use of technical vocab and personal insights from our own areas of expertise. So a lot of that is indeed what a courtroom does in seeking objective truth.

I find some of your more dogmatic and repeated assertions lightweight. Hence my repeated probing … especially, as a trained scholar, I know when someone is side stepping and not reasonably stepping up to the plate yet still wants to assert their assertions as if accepted.

I will decide when yes/no responses are in order when I post and you may do the same when you post.

Oh dear. Rau you hopefully understand I am doing the equivalent of calling you out in the playground, addressing the elephant in your room, throwing down the glove…but in a friendly manner. Unlike the playground there are no later reprisals for not stepping up. But as we all know there are consequences for not facing a challenge. Our arguments immediately lose credibility because we let them go undefended. Nobody will take them or us seriously anymore if we cannot clearly state our position when reasonably challenged.

So of course you may keep avoiding these reasonable questions by responding in less than candid manner or even not at all. Its totally your choice. But then please dont keep asserting your questioned principles further in these arguments because nobody will accept them and you will be wasting our time and your own pursuing them.
Its simply a counterproductive habit to want your cake and eat it too. Most of us outgrow such inefficiencies when we realise we are more interested in self learning and shared insights than rhetoric to convince others of a somewhat rigidly held dogma.

And please feel free to contribute principled analyses to the thread.

I am not sure why you believe I am doing otherwise. I am the first to admit I have no unified theory of the moral universe, I see no single forest, though I do see many woods and a few isolated groves.
But not possessing/ underatanding a comprehensive moral system doesnt mean I cannot recognise unlikely assertions when I see them.

Hope you are not offended. I have blazed a trail a little higher up the mountain than you have simply by reason of my years and unusual educational opportunities and have observations to offer not yet on your horizon. If you wish to go your own at times counterproductive trails that is how it usually has to be.


You are of course free to hold whatever opinion you wish.

And this is not a classroom, and you are not our professor. But please share your ideas (on the subject of the thread) to advance the aims of the thread.

Thanks for the advice… Do you have any assertions and principles of your own to propose that might advance the thread?

Oh…I feel so let down.


Can an act that by its nature is directly ordered to kill (or harm) an innocent person be a just act? Evidently it cannot, since it entails moral evil. So the innocent can surely defend himself. [The guilty may not - the man condemned by legitimate authority may not attack his jailer, nor his executioner, and the acts against him are presumed just…]

Can an act that by its nature is not directly ordered to kill an innocent, but which threatens to do so “indirectly” be a just act? It would seem it could be - targetted bombing anticipating collateral casualties could be such a case. Can those potential casualties fight back in defence? It is difficult to see why not (if they have no other option to keep safe).

I think we (@Ender, @o_mlly) agree that the ‘one’ on the track is “innocent” in every relevant respect. It would seem that he (any innocent) has a right to defend himself regardless of the justice of the act that threatens him, for I don’t believe he is obligated to sacrifice his life for any other good. But I would be interested to hear any contrary views.


I prefer to express the reasoning as follows: It seems hard to escape the observation that the death of the innocent is the end, in terms of morality, towards which the act of throwing the switch is inherently ordered. It also seems hard to escape the observation that the saving of the 4 on the primary track is also the end, in terms of morality, towards which the act of throwing the switch is inherently ordered. As I understand it, this ‘formulation’ establishes the moral object(s) of the act (or at least is our best shot at doing so). I am not seeing anything to distinguish the two ends other than that one is not the motivation to act, and this is not sufficient to ‘demote’ one of them from moral object.

It would be handy if @o_mlly could comment whether this aligns with his position or alternatively summarise his position, or where it varies from this. [I’ve forgotten whether he concurred with the view there are 2 moral objects.]


Well, I was hoping for a “yes, redirecting the trolley is intrinsically evil”, or “no, it isn’t”. The only way the action of throwing the switch can be immoral - given that the intent is to save the four - is if throwing the switch - which redirects the trolley at an innocent person - is an inherently evil act. Would you agree with that?

I think I can show that it is not inherently evil by changing the conditions slightly. Suppose the track after the switch is a circle, and the switch only determines whether the trolley goes around clockwise or counterclockwise. When the trolley completes the loop it simply heads back out the way it came.

The switch is set to send the trolley around to the right - counterclockwise. One third of the way around the track in that direction an infant’s mother is caught on the track. One third of the way around in the other direction a car is stopped on the track, with the woman’s infant child inside. When the trolley hits the car it will derail.

So, if the trolley continues around as the switch is set, it will first strike and kill the mother, and continue on until it hits the car, killing the infant, derailing and stopping. If, however, the switch is thrown, the trolley will go around clockwise and strike the car first. Again, the child will be killed, but the car will derail the trolley and the mother will be saved.

If your position that directing the trolley at an innocent person is an intrinsically evil act, then you must let both the mother and the child die, but if you take that stance then I see no way for you to reconcile the doctor’s action that saves the mother yet causes the child to die. I don’t think you can allow the operation but disallow the switching, yet if you allow the switch to be thrown in this case you must also acknowledge that redirecting a trolley at an innocent person is not intrinsically evil, in which case you must also allow it to be thrown to save the four.


That wasn’t what you proposed; I’ve already indicated I do hold the view (though still seeking an alternative understanding) that to throw the switch in the given scenario is murder (intrinsically evil).

A nice scenario you have painted Ender which I will consider and get back to you as parental duties are soon upon me. But in the meantime, can you explain the following: You write:

are you referring to this act in isolation or is more information assumed in your implied position that it is not murder and thus not intrinsically evil? What does the actor know, for example, in choosing the action?


Lets leave it here, you don’t seem to be in a happy place at the moment.


Post #466 Sept. 20:

I should have added the intention (Save 4 lives) as a second moral Object as that object is the first goal of the actor.

In the PODE (as I was taught) the actor must not will the evil end or the means to that evil end. In the trolley exercise, the act itself is the means to the death of the innocent person. Since the act is deliberate (willed) the actor certainly wills the means to the evil end. The relationship of act to end is direct just as pull-trigger-bullet-death is as direct as throw-switch-trolley-death.

In the case of the surgeon and tubal pregnancy, the scalpel cuts only the mother’s diseased tissue. In excising the diseased tissue, the infant within dies. The infant within the diseased tissue dies indirectly.


If an innocent may defend regardless of the justice of the act then a definition of an innocent aggressor is necessary.

As an aggressor is always the first to attack, the only innocent aggressor I can imagine is possibly the bomber pilot waging a just war relative to the innocent non-combatants who are along the path of his bombing run. But those innocents are not in peril until after the bomber pilot releases the bombs and at that time the bomber is no longer a threat. May the innocents lethally attack the bomber pilot who is no longer a threat? I think not.


After the bomb has been released, no. I do think they would be justified in trying to take the bomber out before the bomb is dropped though, assuming that they know bombs are about to be dropped.


I’d be happier if I could conclude that there cannot be a just act that authorises (lethal) self-defense against the actor… but I think your argument here is a bit strained. To require the one threatened to have no right to oppose (by way of potentially lethal self-defence) until the relevant bomb / bullet / missile is on its way (by which point self-defence is limited to running very fast) seems to require an unusual level of restraint on the one at risk.

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