Runaway trolley problem


An operation to remove an ectopic pregnancy guarantees the killing of one person and is the only possible outcome…yet the church allows it. Why is that? The question has to do with intent. In both the case of the pregnancy and the trolley the intent is not the death that is inevitable but the life (lives) that is (are) saved. The intent of the doctor is not to kill the child but to save the mother; the intent on the trolley is not to kill the one but to not kill the five.


It is immoral to act in a way so that five people die rather than to act so that only one will die.

A more interesting situation would be that there is only one person on each track: do you now have moral justification for choosing which will die?


Not always true. Fatman stuck in cave entrance. You can’t hack him to death to clear a path to save the 5.


The word “intent” will bring some confusion because it will be read by some as a reference to the Intention font which I trust is not your meaning. [I appreciate that Intention and Circumstances often informs our understanding of moral object, but not always.]. If pulling the lever fails to be moral, it fails because of the presence of an evil moral object. Whether such an object is present is the single issue I believe.


No, that was my meaning. I was referring to the intention font of a moral act.

I don’t believe it is possible to describe this situation so that the choice to save the five is intrinsically evil.


Alas, that plus the balance of body count anticipated is not enough to assure a moral act. What is/are the moral object(s) of the well intentioned man pulling the lever? I was initially sure there was but one - saving lives.


The explanation is that a good end does not justify an immoral means.


My posts were all in reference to the trolley, not the mother child scenario you put forth.

No, and this scenario is too different from the trolley scenario to be analogous.

Again, not comparable to the trolley scenario. The child’s life is already at risk. And the Church does not allow for a direct attack on the child, but only the removal/repair of the mother’s tissue. Also the mother’s own life being involved allows the completely different options of self sacrifice in the various mother/child scenarios.

Again, one person is already fated to die. You have no moral choice available to you to save that person because the only other option will cause someone not fated to die to be killed.


I understand this. What I’m arguing is that the means - switching the trolley and not switching the trolley - are morally equivalent.


True. One cannot use immoral means, as AlNg said. No one disputes this.

I agree…so where is the difficulty?


I said “initially”. It is not so clear. Define moral object and apply it to the trolley. Walk us through your thought process.


I could not make a lot of sense out of your questions.

Are you ok with the mother child scenario I provided - that is, mum can choose a treatment that saves herself but kills her child? Ignore whether this is comparable to trolley for now.


Well, we’ve kinda beaten the subject matter to death, haven’t we? I mean, we’ve been pretty clear what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject of moral theology, and explicated the dilemma in terms of Church teaching (and demonstrated that there’s no apparent dilemma).

On the other hand, you’ve proposed alternative approaches to moral theology. If we’ve reached the point where we all recognize that the Church teaches one thing and you propose another, isn’t it charitable simply to conclude, “ok… Rau’s moral theology is different than the Church’s”…?

We don’t have to discuss you. We can, however, admit that we’ve reached the end of this particular discussion. :man_shrugging:



Yes. Precisely! So… if you can’t choose an action that kills one in order to save five, then why are you suggesting that you can choose an action (toggling a rail switch) that kills one in order to save five? The two are morally equivalent… :wink:


That is the whole point, isn’t it? You cannot kill one in order to save five. Whether you kill the one person by pulling a trigger on a gun, by hacking that person to death, or by pulling a lever to direct a trolley to kill the innocent man, I don;t see why there should be any moral difference in the means used to kill the person. You choose to kill that one person to save the other five.


Not at all. I apply the very same 3-font model briefly summarised in the Catechism. I assume you agree that the correct answer to the original question rests on correctly identifying the moral object(s) of the act(s) in question. I presume you judge that the act of pulling the lever has 2 moral objects (as I suggested in an earlier post)?


A mother can choose an action (her medical treatment) to save her life that causes the death of her unborn. So I disagree with your statement as it is written. [But I’m guessing you do agree that a mother may do this.]

It is arguable that the trolley scenario act causes death in a more morally direct way (hence the 2nd moral object) than the medical case.


Yes, depending on the condition and the current mortal danger present to the mother and the child.

If the mother’s life is truly at risk and needs emergency treatment and there is no ability to wait until the child to develop enough for the possibly to be delivered early and have a chance at life, then the child is already in mortal danger; if the mother doesn’t get treatment, then they both will die.

If the choice is between delaying a treatment for the mother to allow the child to be delivered with a increased chance at survival but decreasing the mother’s chance at survival, or proceeding immediately with the treatment for the mother an immediately resulting in the death of the child, then I would say this scenario is significantly more complex because of the self sacrificing aspect of it.

For example, like a mother trying to save their born child from an attacking animal, or trying to rescue them if they have wandered into traffic, a mother taking self-sacrificial actions to try to save their child from death or harm is a sacrificial and morally good act.

As Jesus tells us,

John 15:12-13
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
13 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The child’s status of not yet being born does not decrease the nobility in the mother placing herself at increased risk for the benefit of their unborn child.

I think that in this, one of the most morally complex of decisions possible for someone, I would say the most selfless, loving, and Christ like choice for the mother would be to do everything possible to give the child the greatest chance at life, even to the detriment of her own well being.

Without an immediate emergent risk of death for the mother (and by default the child as well), I find it much harder to qualify as more desirable the acting in a self interested way at the expense of an innocent child’s life, though this does not necessarily render the act as immoral.

The mother’s moral culpability could potentially be drastically reduced or non-existent because of the circumstances, but as for the acts themselves, I see in the two choices the assessment of morality being:

-acting in a selfless way that would be morally good
-acting in a self serving way that would (depending on the specific action and it’s directness) be a lesser moral good or morally neutral at best (treatment that increases risk to unborn child) to morally reprehensible at worst (outright abortion).

I pray that the Holy Spirit give peace and wisdom to all women who find themselves in such heart-wrenching scenarios and gives them the courage to seek and find inspiration for their decisions in the teachings of Christ.


The situation is intended to be understood as having a regrettably binary outcome. Delaying treatment assures survival of child, but so prejudices mother’s treatment that she will soon die. Immediate treatment saves mother, but kills the child (unintentionally of course), somewhat as you lay out here:

But identifying the “most selfless and Christ like” act is not the task, and acts short of that can be moral. We are trying to answer the question - is it permissible for the mother to save her life when the treatment will kill the child?

You do say here that there can be an action that is morally good yet kills the child.

You mention “directness” which is an important concept. If the treatment for the mother is necessary to save her, and is directed at the mother’s body/illness we’d ordinarily say that the good effects are morally direct, and the unwanted ill effects are morally indirect. We would ascribe a single (good) moral object to this act. Do you agree?


This seems to be the crux of the problem: what is the nature of the act of throwing the switch? Similarly, what is the nature of the choice not to throw the switch?

First, I reject your characterization that one chooses to kill one in order to save five. In fact the choice is to save five, and accept the death of one. This is exactly analogous to the mother who chooses to have an operation that saves her life, but leads to the death of her fetus. She does not choose the death, but accepts it as the consequence of the choice to save herself.

So, what makes the act of throwing the switch immoral? Is it intrinsically evil? What makes it so? If the conductor didn’t know there was a person on the other track I think we can all agree that throwing the switch would be a moral obligation, so how can an act be intrinsically evil based on what the actor does or doesn’t know? That’s not how intrinsic evil is determined.

Finally, if the act is not intrinsically evil then the moral nature of the act is determined by the intent (and to some extent by the circumstances). That being the case, if the intent is to save five - and certainly not to kill one - then what makes the act immoral? Why indeed would the immoral act not be to sit on ones hands and let the five die?

We may not deliberately kill one person even if the consequence of the action is that five will live, but we can act to save five even if the consequence of the action is the death of one. We need to better distinguish between the act and the consequence.

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