Runaway trolley problem


What looks like an upper case “i” is actually a lower case “L”. :slight_smile: So, if you type “ucase(A) lcase(L) ucase(N) lcase(G)” you get the correct phrase you needed. It is sometimes useful to have experience in the language “C”, where upper case and lower case letters are distinguished.


Absolutely. If you have only “bad” choices, you need to choose the “least bad” one. Elementary, my dear Watson. :slight_smile: But YOU already knew that… only the others are ignorant.


The argument against throwing the switch in the first case (as I understand it) is that it is an intrinsically evil act to intentionally do something that you know will cause someone’s death. If that is so however, then the switch cannot be thrown in the second case either given that an intrinsically evil act admits of no exceptions, and the argument that the baby is going to die whether or not the switch is thrown cannot qualify as an exception. That said, if you cannot accept throwing the switch in the second case you cannot accept an operation in the case of an ectopic pregnancy since these are morally identical situations. The problem with that of course is that the church accepts the operation, which suggests that intentionally routing the trolley away from the mother, even though it also directs it at the child, is a moral act. If it is moral in that case, however, then throwing the switch, even though you know it is now aimed at a different person cannot be an intrinsically evil act, and if the act itself is not evil then I don’t see any argument against committing the same act in the original case.


I do not argue… since I agree. :slight_smile: Well said.


A-ha! I knew it had to be something!

… sad thing is, I do have experience in programming, so I should’ve known that… :blush:


Perhaps this important point need re-emphasis. An intrinsically evil act is independent of intention. Such an act, intrinsically evil, in itself determines an evil act for any actor with any intention.


Then why don’t you try to articulate: (a) whether you consider throwing the switch to be an intrinsically evil act, and (b) what makes it one?


I believe I have, several times.
a) Yes.
b) Pull the lever (pull the trigger) directly sends the trolley (bullet) killing an innocent person.


Dropping bombs kills innocent civilians. Operating on an ectopic pregnancy kills an innocent person. Your criterion applies to those actions as well, except that you consider them justified. This suggests your criterion is incomplete in that it does not distinguish when killing an innocent person is acceptable from when it is not.


Directly killing the innocent is the issue. More to follow on that point.


Don’t use this term unless you define what you mean when you use it.


I mean the same thing by “directly killing” as theologians mean, and as JP II did when he wrote:

“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.” JP II, VS (57)

When you read this Ender (which I am sure you have on several occasions over the years), did you rely on the dictionary sense of “direct” and conclude it covered physically direct actions (like shooting a child), but not physically indirect ones (like shooting holes in the child’s lifeboat)? Probably not, since you correctly concluded earlier that these two acts are morally the same. And if we then consider the Pope’s statement above, we probably are forced to conclude that in the moral theology context, both those acts are a “direct killing”. It might also suggest to us that what would be termed “indirect killing” need not be gravely immoral.

What cases do we know of when innocent humans are killed by a deliberate (voluntary) act but which are not gravely immoral? Here are some:

  • in a just war, military leaders bomb a legitimate target, anticipating the likely death of innocent civilians; These death are indirect killings - the act is not intrinsically evil (and its morality depends on intention and circumstances) because the act itself is not inherently directed to the evil moral object of killing the innocent;
  • under threat of an epidemic, medical officials propose to vaccinate widely, notwithstanding the risk of some deaths from adverse side-effects to the vaccine. These deaths could be called physically direct, but they are morally indirect because the chosen act itself (providing vaccination) is inherently directed to the moral object of preventing disease, not at killing the innocent.
  • Licit treatment of ectopic pregnancy.

The terms “direct/indirect” are not referring to physical directness, but to moral directness. Moral directness, not physical directness, is an essential attribute of intrinsically evil acts.

An intrinsically evil act is inherently directed at an evil end: its moral object. This is the sense in which we say all intrinsically evil acts are (morally) direct. Another act may have the same end result, but if that act is not inherently ordered to the same moral object then that act is not intrinsically evil.

The relationship between any act and its moral object is direct because the act itself is inherently ordered toward that moral object. This has nothing to do with physical directness.


OK, now apply your argument to the situation I described with the circular track where both the mother and the child die if the switch is not thrown, but only the child will die if it is. Is throwing the switch also illicit in this case?


No need to “blush”. Actually, it is easy to overlook it. User ID’s are pretty much always are case insensitive, while passwords are almost always are case sensitive. And here you get a User ID. :slight_smile:

Just for the fun of it:

There is an English word, where you know exactly how to pronounce it, if it is presented in all lower-case letters. Also you know exactly how to pronounce it is the first letter is capitalized. But you cannot know how to pronounce it, if it is presented in ALL capital letters (without any help from the surrounding text). Do you know what that word is? (I learned this fun fact from Asimov… who else?)


I made no argument, just attempted to explain the meanings of certain words. Do you accept those explanations? Do you agree that they align with the meaning as used by JP 2 in the quote I gave (if not, could you explain the meaning of “direct” as he used it.).

I’m away from home and will respond to the circular trolley in the next day or so.


Directing bombs on non-combatants directly kills innocent persons.

Directing bombs on an unjust enemy’s munitions factory directly kills unjust combatants who threaten innocent lives.

(CCC#2265 The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm).

Directing the scalpel at the child kills an innocent person.

Directing the scalpel (bomb) at the diseased tissue (munitions factory) excises (kills) that which threatens an innocent life.


I can’t get away from the feeling that “direct” means “inevitable consequence”. I can accept that, but note also that JPII said the killing had to be not just direct but voluntary. In regards to this situation i don’t think the death meets the criterion of being voluntary.


It should be possible to see that there is more to it than that. Were inevitability the full story, licit treatment of ectopic pregnancy (and some other cases) would be justified on utilitarian grounds, such as:…“yeah, we’ve murdered the baby, but we had to or both mum and baby would have died”. But that is not the Catholic understanding of events.

I can only do short responses on phone at moment. By “voluntary” we mean: “deliberately chosen”, “intentionally chosen”, “knowingly chosen”. If an act is not voluntary, it does not even rate as an “act” for the purposes of a moral theology discussion. Voluntarily choosing an act is not separable from choosing its inherent moral meaning. Throwing the lever is a voluntary choice even under great duress.


I don’t understand this at all. We’re not talking about what will inevitably happen regardless of our behavior, but of what will inevitably result as a consequence of our acts. This is what I understand “direct” to mean. If I do X, Y will result, inexorably if not immediately.

I don’t think JPII meant voluntary as to the choice of the act, but as to the choice of the consequence. This is a component of double effect: the harmful consequence must not be desired. This is how I understand an operation that results in the death of a fetus: its death is a direct result of the operation, but the death is not voluntary in that it is not desired. The doctor (the mother) would spare the life if it was possible to do so; that it is not possible to do so makes it involuntary.


I saw this article today and thought I would share it with those in this discussion.

Enjoy, and may the Lord give you peace.

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