Runaway trolley problem


What is the key? I know you can say it is in the moral object but how do we determine if a death is in the object or the circumstances?


Please restate your circular track scenario in its moral order:
Moral Object:

Analyzing the case in its elements rather than a narrative may save another 700 + posts.


The moral object is the end (in terms of morality) to which the act by its very nature is inherently directed (ordered). Tube removal is an act about saving the mother (whose tube will soon rupture leading to her death) not about killing the baby. Methotrexate injection is an act about killing a baby. Both have same motive. Both lead to a death in the consequences. The moral object is different. Note that the moral treatment is one in which more harm, not less, results. We have a dead baby and a mother without a tube. Methotrexate would have left tube in tact, but would be murder. And whichever act is chosen - it is voluntarily chosen, which implies the moral object is chosen.

Redirecting the trolley from one track to another has 2 moral objects. It is inherently directed equally to saving and to killing innocents. The structure of the problem with tracks directed as they are creates this situation.


I was asking for general principals.


Read the first sentence only if you prefer to skip examples demonstrating the principle.


OK. I found your circular track at post #664 (in my index). The moral case is simpler than the OP’s.

If your summation quoted above is correct then no need to restate the case in the moral order. One ought to throw the switch.

2269 The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death. the moral law prohibits … refusing assistance to a person in danger.

One must do only what they can do. No act can save both. An act can assist the mother out of danger. Under your conditions, one is obligated to assist a person in danger. (No harm is foreseen to others or self.)


Answer the question about the situation with the trolley and the circular track. Do you throw the switch and send the trolley at the car with the infant, whereby the infant alone is killed but the mother is saved, or do you not throw the switch in which case both the mother and the infant are killed?


No. What I will do is restate the situation and you can give a yes or no answer as to whether you would throw the switch.

The trolley is heading for a circular portion of the track. The switch controls which way around the circle the trolley will go, either clockwise or counter clockwise; it is set so the trolley will go to the right - counter clockwise. One third of the way around on the right side a mother is stuck on the track; one third of the way around on the left side a car containing her infant son is stuck on the track. When the trolley strikes the car it will derail.

If the switch is not thrown, the trolley will go to the right, killing the mother first, and then hitting the car killing the infant. It will then be derailed. If the switch is thrown the trolley will go around to the left and hit the car where it will again be derailed, but now the mother will live. Either way, the infant will die, but if (and only if) the switch is thrown will the mother live.

Do you throw the switch?


Not according to JPII. By his definition the moral object includes the proximate end, which in this case would be the redirection of the trolley. It does not include all of the consequences.

Again, this is incorrect. An act can have only one object; it is the verb, the thing done, plus the proximate end. There simply cannot be two objects to one act.

Both situations inevitably lead to life and to death. The death of the fetus, like the death of the person on the track, is accepted because they are unintended (unwanted, involuntary, unavoidable) consequences.


If it is allowable to throw the switch in this case then it is equally allowable to throw it in the original case. Both situations directly lead to the death of an innocent person at your hand. All of the moral objections you and @Rau have used against throwing the switch equally apply in this case.


We know throwing the switch directly saves the four and directly causes the death of the one. Now, how would you compare the morality of throwing the switch if its effect were also:

a) directing the trolley at the innocent [ie. as per the OP], OR
b) applying a fatal electric shock to the innocent and directing the trolley to somewhere safe?

The death in (b) is surely just as proximate an end as the saving effect. Are you suggesting (a) is OK because it takes a few seconds longer to kill whereas (b) is not OK because it is “really” proximate, or would you argue that you didn’t really want to electrocute the one (ie. not voluntary, using your (erroneous) terminology), therefore it was Ok to do it?


This is a pretty good scenario to underline the principle: “if there is no way to prevent all the unwanted outcomes, then one should choose the solution with the least amount of negative outcome”. There is no need for the “moral” object, proximate end or final end, or any other nonsense. As a matter of fact, it is a very simple extension of the Hippocratic principle. The original: “First, do no harm”. Extension: “If you cannot avoid doing harm, then do as little harm as possible”. So obvious. :slight_smile:


I posted the following when you originally posited the circular trolley. Noone responded to it:

"Long ago, mother and child would die in child-birth because the head of the child was too large to be delivered (cephalo-pelvic disproportion). At some point it became a “practice” to crush the head of the child enabling the (dead) body to be delivered and the mother saved. Is this the moral course? Could we apply double-effect here and argue that the child’s death was an unintended side-effect of reducing the size of his cranium? It seems a stretch. Crushing a skull is fairly inherently ordered to the death of the innocent, even though that end is not required. But putting aside the death issue, there would be no doubt that we have grievously mutilated the child which is also impermissible.
It is distressing (and not a little unsatisfying) to confront the possibility that the only morally acceptable course is the one that sees the maximum physical evil."

The circular trolley, threatening to take out mum, then bub, bears a striking similarity.


From the bystander’s perspective, the moral situations – the OP’s trolley and your circular track – are substantially different.

In the trolley case, the bystander foresees that the innocent person dies if the bystander involves him in something in order to further the bystander’s intended purpose. The bystander’s deliberate (voluntary) act directly causes the innocent person’s death. Absent the bystander’s act, the bystander foresees that the innocent person does not die. Therefore, the bystander is the direct agent of the innocent person’s death. The parallel case is the surgeon who performs a craniotomy. (The surgeon is the direct agent of the infant’s death.)

In the circular track case, the bystander first foresees that the infant and the mother die. He does not foresee an act that saves the life of the infant. He foresees an act that saves the life of the mother-- redirect the trolley to hit the car. The trolley impacting the car saves the mother. The bystander would perform the same act if the infant was not in the car as the surgeon who excises diseased tubal tissue would perform the same act if the infected tube did not contain a fetus. If there was no car (infection) then there would be no cause of action. The bystander’s act does not deliberately (voluntarily) involve the infant in something harmful that otherwise the infant would not be involved in. The bystander’s involuntary act indirectly causes the infant’s death. The bystander is the indirect agent of the infant’s death. (The surgeon is the indirect agent of the fetus’ death.)

I suspect you will not agree. But others may so I post my argument.


True, saving the four is the intent; the death of the one is an unwanted consequence. Neither is the object.

I don’t know that we need even more different situations to consider, but after you’ve answered by question about the circular track I might give this example some thought.

No, it isn’t. Proximate means immediate. What is the immediate consequence of throwing the switch? The train is rerouted. That is the proximate end. There are things that occur as a result of the train going in a different direction, but they are not proximate to the act. They are the inevitable consequences. Why does one throw the switch? Yes, the final objective is to save the four, but throwing the switch is the means chosen because it reroutes the train.


Are you going to answer the question about throwing the switch on the circular track?


This may seem like an obvious example to you, but one cannot make valid choices in difficult situations unless there are clear principles one can apply. This is the value of concepts like intent, object, and consequences. Without such principles one can justify pretty much anything…


Frankly, I’m undecided regarding the circular track, seeing 2 arguments.

Yes, I am telling you the electrocution is set to kill at just the same time that the diverting track renders the four save. I introduced it to help you see that a mere difference of timing is all that separates the OP scenario from an obviously intentional killing (by electrocution) of an innocent. But there is no moral difference between these almost identical scenarios. We foresaw his death, his death is directly caused by our action, and we voluntarily chose the act anyway. The time delay, like the flight time of a bullet, or a trolley, or of electrons , does not matter. Our lack of desire for the death we directly cause does not matter.


My initial instinct is that it is OK to take 1 for 4 from both of them, but upon further inspection that might not be so.
Let me ask you:
Does the situation change if the one on the trolley is your child and the four strangers, despite them all being someone’s children?
Does the situation change if the one on the trolley is alive and begging you to not kill him or her, and the four are all sound asleep due to a sleep syrum or whatever dastardly men with curly mustaches use nowadays?
Does the situation change if you know the one on the track is innocent while the four are all repeat, serial rapists and murderers?

Does the other situation change if the one with the organs is your child? What if the four in need are all your children, and the one a stranger?
Does the situation change if the one with the organs says he does NOT want that to happen to him and refuses surgery? Does the situation change if the one with the organs is also injected with some sleeping syrum? Does the situation change if the one the organs says he most certainly does want the surgery if it means he can save the four lives?

But, now I will answer the question based upon thought and not instinct.
Assuming you are in a situation wherein a presumably empty trolley is coming to hit 4 tied up strangers who are injected with a sleep syrum on their track yet there is a lever that you can pull that is close enough to pull it in time yet too far away to try to save the four or stop the trolley, and on the one and only other track there is one stranger also injected with sleep syrum tied up, then obviously you just need to defeat the villian who set this up, that always saves the day in these types of situations. Crisis averted.
Oh, and the doctor also has organs that match and if they both give two organs they both get to live, but in transplanting the organs from the doctor, one of his less experienced nurses had to do the act, and there was only a 60% chance of survival for everyone but it all worked out according to television common sense.


The surgeon’s deliberate (voluntary) act directly causes an innocent person’s death. What is true of one situation is true of both.

True, if the bystander does not throw the switch the one person does not die…and the four do. In both the case of the bystander and that of the surgeon, they are the direct agent of someone’s death.

Are we allowed to directly kill a person in those cases where we see he will soon die in any event? If life may be taken where it will soon be lost then what is the problem with euthanasia?

And the bystander would certainly throw the switch if there was no one on the other track. And let’s be clear: the bystander’s act is completely voluntary. What is involuntary is the evil consequence. Nor is it possible to claim that rerouting the trolley in the case of the circular track is any different than doing it in the OP case. In both cases the trolley is sent directly at an innocent person. What is direct (or indirect) in one case is direct (or indirect) in the other.


The clear principle here is: “do no harm, but if the circumstances force you to do harm, then do as little harm as possible”. As for the rest: “what” do you want to achieve (object), “how” do you want to achieve it (circumstances), and “why” do you want to achieve it (intent).

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