Runaway trolley problem


There are 2. The saving of 4 lives and the depriving of the life of 1 innocent. Throwing the switch both saves those in danger and kills the one who was perfectly safe but for your act. The death of the innocent was directly caused by the act, deliberately chosen, to divert the trolley (precisely toward the innocent), and thus cannot be excused.


This is not clear at all. The first part looks like intent (save 4) and consequence (1 dies).


Neither of those describes the object. What you described were the consequences. The object includes the physical act (a verb) as well as the proximate end (objective) of the act (which is distinct from the objective of the action). In the case of throwing the switch, that is the physical act, but the proximate end of that act is to redirect the trolley away from the four. The intent of the action is to save the four, the means chosen is redirecting the trolley by throwing the switch, the consequences include both their salvation and the death of the one.

The death of the innocent was not directly caused by the act although it did directly flow from the act (a useful distinction o-mlly provided). The action was deliberately chosen, although the evil consequence was not intended. It is thus, like the surgeon operating on an ectopic pregnancy, an example of an act with a double effect. Since the action meets all the requirements of double effect, it is justified.


The act of redirecting the trolley away from four innocent people is an inherently good act (it has a good moral object - directly eliminating the threat) and the death of the innocent is indirect. The latter is in the consequences only, and thus may be weighed alongside other consequences.

My explanation flows from the definition of direct and indirect that o_mlly provided: the former being “in the act”, and the latter “from the act.” This is how I understand both the actions of the surgeon and the bystander; my categorizations flow from that definition. Your categorizations are nothing more than assertions, they are not based on a definition that is generally applicable.

The problem is in your use of direct and indirect.

This is true, but it is also irrelevant. If your argument was in fact accurate we would be disallowed from redirecting the trolley even if the person was guilty of tying the four to the other track. His guilt or innocence is immaterial.

Your position is also inconsistent with the position you’ve taken earlier.

“Imagine the circular trolley with no mother on the track – just the baby – but all other details as Ender specified. Is the evil inherent in the act that sets the trolley in motion any different according to where on the track the baby is placed? I don’t believe so. Is there evil in changing the direction in which the trolley circulates (altering the time of death) – I don’t believe so.”

Here’s the difficulty with your position: if your claim is right that rerouting the trolley at a person is an intrinsically evil act, then you cannot throw the switch in your example above. You’ve said you don’t believe there is a problem with throwing the switch, yet that act meets all of your criteria for an immoral act. This is also true in the case of the mother and child on the circular track. Your position prohibits you from throwing the switch which would save the mother’s life even though the infant will die whether or not the switch is thrown. The fact that your position leads to such difficulties is a real good indication that it is flawed.


Then you choose the Proportionalist’s model - there is only Intention and consequences.

A moral object is an end, in terms of morality, to which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. It is not a purely physical thing as you proposed. Changing the direction of that trolley away from 4 and precisely toward 1 has moral meaning itself - it is inherently ordered to good (saving life) and to evil (taking innocent life). Note that why this act is done (Intention) is not yet mentioned, though we know in this scenario it is well intentioned (save lives).


I’m glad you’ve added “away from the four” - that begins to allow morality into the expression. The act is now seen to include - by its nature - protection of lives (a moral element). But alas the redirection in question is not SOLELY one which - by its nature - protects. For the chosen redirection is EQUALLY accurately described as directing it toward the 1. The direct assault on this life is EQUALLY inherent to the act. Why do you omit this from the description? As @O_mlly has suggested, I believe you are blurring the distinction between the fonts - allowing Intention to factor in to your analysis - deceiving you into seeing the moral object as consistent with the desires of the actor, and all else as mere consequence.

In stressing the importance of your inclusion of “away from the four” I am not being pedantic. Ordinarily, we would think of “redirection” for the purpose of “life saving collision avoidance” as always entirely good. The special case of the trolley is that by the nature of train tracks, the redirection is exquisitely constrained - We must choose to kill (innocents) if we desire to save. The killing is no less inherent to the act than the saving.


Of course the innocent’s death was directly caused by the act - our hero directed a moving trolley precisely toward a helpless innocent man who was entirely safe and unthreatened until the moment of the act. Can you imagine a more direct killing? Double effect does not apply to intrinsically evil acts - such as this killing - no matter the good that was in the mind of the hero to be achieved.

The comparison with the surgeon is flawed. The surgeon’s knife is directed to where it belongs - in the body of the mother. The trolley should not have been directed at the 1.


I would pray to God and ask him for divine intervention.


This is a worthy act, since the trolley problem as defined allows no other.


If you have understood this definition, why does @o_mlly not support your analysis?

Ender - the term “innocent” in moral theology does not refer to a person who did a bad thing. If the ‘one’ tied on the track had recently blown up a pre-school centre, or was the one who set the trolley in motion, he would remain for the purposes of this problem an “innocent”. If he picks up a weapon and threatens to shoot a passenger on a train, he ceases to be an “innocent”, and you may act against him. So, yes, my statement is true (as you acknowledge), and it does have the implication you set out.


Three points to consider.

  1. The moral object of an act is objective, that is the moral object does not change for any particular actor. The font of intention of an act is subjective, that is intent may change as actors change.

Given your abbreviated description of the moral object, change only the actor (bystander) to one with an evil intention. How do you explain the actor whose intention is to kill the innocent person (make up the back story – it doesn’t matter)? Remembering that no actor can intend what is not foreseen, I think you must now include to the moral object that the re-directed trolley kills an the innocent person (the evil effect) as @Rau and I have argued. If you do not then such an analysis is incoherent as the end intended is not an end in the moral object.

  1. That leaves us with whether the act is the direct cause of the evil effect. Remembering that every effect has a in se cause, what in se causes the death of the innocent in your analysis? To ascribe the in se cause of the evil as a physical rather than a moral evil requires one to ignore the foreseeable outcome that throwing the switch is the only cause of the innocent’s death. If throwing the switch is the only cause of an outcome then throwing the switch is the in se and per se (direct) cause.

  2. By what authority does the bystander claim the right to decide who lives and who dies? The lack of this authority separates the mother’s dilemma in tubal pregnancy as comparable. The bystander may offer his own life for the sake of others but he may not offer another’s life.


Ender, you may need to re-read my already provided answer to the circular trolley. The bystander at the switch does not place the baby in danger - he causes no moral evil. The trolley is already directed at the baby by others and cannot be stopped. Whether the trolley strikes the left of the car, or the right, is of no moral substance. This is starkly different from the original trolley where the 1 was perfectly safe until the bystander’s act which directly deprives an innocent of his life.


@Ender, I’d be interested in your thoughts on #832. Same as original problem, but trolleys replaced by electrical wires.


I’ve stated this several times before; this is nothing new.

It is surely true that the one act has two consequences: it redirects the trolley away from the four, and at the one. The fact that it directs it at the one, however, is not part of the object. It is a consequence of the act. Remember, the object includes along with the physical act the proximate end of the act, and in no way can that end be presumed to be directing the trolley at the one. That is no part of the end, so it is not accurate to equate the two consequences as being morally equivalent. Again, there is only one object of an act, and in this instance it is obviously to redirect away from the four.

You keep claiming this without any reference to a universally applicable meaning for the term “direct.” What makes it a direct assault rather than an indirect one? Where is your distinction between terms?




If JPII is right (which I’m willing to assume is true) then the object contains an intent - the proximate end of the act. This is different than the intention font related to the action. The intention of the action is to save four lives. The proximate end of throwing the switch is to redirect the trolley; which is the action chosen to accomplish that goal. The consequences of the act are life for the four and death for the one.

First, there is simply no question that one has freely chosen to kill anyone. That goes to the criteria for double effect: one cannot will the evil consequence, but only accept it as as unwanted, and completely unavoidable. Your approach would nullify the entire concept of PODE by defining it as a given that the evil effect was chosen.

Second, as for the killing being inherent in the act, that seems true, but misleading because it is ambiguous. I’ve said before that the relevant distinction is whether the outcome is “in the act” or only “from the act.” If the death was in the act then it would be immoral, but if it only flows from the act then it may (conditionally) be allowed. Your comment leaves no room for this distinction.

Finally, and you have yet to address this, your position creates severe problems for you in the cases of the circular track with mother and infant, and with the infant alone. You are unable to throw the switch in either case even though that is the most rational thing to do. When your moral definitions cause you to act unreasonably it’s time to reconsider them.


Because (s)he can’t contest it but doesn’t want to admit the validity of my position? How should I know? The point, however, is whether or not my analysis is valid, not whether someone else agrees with it.

So you’re saying I can direct the trolley at a person if he’s threatening someone else?


Yes, that is what I would do. Step aside, not pull the lever and pray. By pulling the lever you become complicit in the killing of an innocent man. This man may or may not have a wife and family, but it is possible. Suppose he did have a wife and family and you told the wife, now a widow, that this was an inherently good act.

I doubt that she and her children would agree with that. Are you going to face the widow and her orphaned children whose father has just been killed as a consequence of your pulling the lever, or are you just going to go away and hide somewhere? Will you support this widow and her fatherless children and help them with their college tuition when they reach that age? And you have opened yourself to legal liability as the man would not have been killed if you had not pulled the lever.


The object would be “objective” only if the object was defined solely as a physical act, but we know this is not the case. As I’ve pointed out several times, JPII has said the object includes the physical act as well as the proximate end, and that end will be subjective and dependent on the actor.

To start with, both the intent and the object would be different even though externally there would be no visible difference in the two actions. The object would be different because the proximate end of the act would be different: to direct the trolley at the one instead of directing it away from the four.

Why is the evil effect part of the object? It is obviously not the proximate end of the act. Every action with a double effect by definition has both a good and an evil effect. Also, by the criteria specified for such an action to be valid, the evil effect cannot be intended even if its inevitability can be foreseen. Like Rau, your assertion that the evil effect was intended here would mean that no action with a double effect could be possible.




Actually, throwing the switch does not cause the death. Getting run over by a trolley is the direct cause; after the switch is thrown the person is still very much alive. Throwing the switch does, however, set in motion events that inevitably lead to death…but that is the distinction between direct and indirect.

The in se (indirect) cause of death is throwing the switch; the per se (direct) cause is getting run over by a trolley. I used the example before of shooting someone to death, and shooting holes in his boat so that it sinks and he drowns. In the first example, both the in se (indirect) and per se (direct) causes are the same: he dies of gunshot wounds. In the second example, however, shooting holes in his boat is the in se cause while drowning is the per se cause. I’m sure any coroner could make that distinction.

One does not have to have special authority to act morally, nor does anyone receive special dispensation to act immorally. If the bystander’s action was moral, that is authority enough.


You have compared throwing the switch to shooting someone in the head. You have defined it as an intrinsically evil action. If this is so then there can be no exceptions, and by the definition you yourself have applied to the action you are prohibited from throwing the switch to save the mother’s life. How can you throw the switch and send the trolley directly at the infant if such an act is intrinsically evil? The fact that the baby is doomed in either case is not an exception because there is no such thing as an exception to the commission of an action that is intrinsically evil. The circumstance of being in or out of imminent danger cannot provide an exception. Exceptions do not exist by definition.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit