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June 03, 2008



I dunno, the distinction between (directly) preventing the deaths vs. causing them to be prevented (by someone else) strikes me as a bit artificial. But in any case, I don't think it tracks the standard Trolley intuitions. Consider the loop case:

(8) You can pull a switch to divert the trolley onto a loop which connects back onto the main track where 5 victims await. Normally this wouldn't help, but fortunately there's a fat man tied to the rails in the loop section, who will bring the train to a halt if it hits him. Should you pull the switch?

Presumably anyone who would divert the trolley in the original case would also do so in the loop case. But you would say it's the fat man, rather than the switch-puller, who directly prevents the 5 deaths in this case. So directly preventing the deaths cannot be the grounds for pulling the switch.

An alternative candidate explanation would be to appeal to whether Jones brings about the one death (saving the five) by acting on the victim (e.g. pushing him), or by indirect means (pulling a switch). Perhaps our intuitions reflect the principle that only the latter (i.e. indirectly causing death) is permissible.


This problem assumes that the 5 people's lives are more valuable than the fat guy's life. The only one that can make the decision of jumping in front of the trolley is the fat guy himself. Anybody else making this decision would be claiming the right to decide who dies and who lives. Who could claim this?


The funny part of this dilemma is that there is no moral problem. The two actions are completely morally different. Now, if one were a consequentialist, merely concerned with the end result - then yes you can crunch the numbers and the same amount of lives are lost and saved. But there is more to morality than just splitting the difference. In the first case, you do not intend the death of the of the man on the other track. But rather, you will to save the lives of the 5 by diverting the train to another track. Incidentally, there happens to be a man on the other track. Whether the one man dies or not, the 5 will be saved by the tracks being switched. There is no causal relationship between the death of the one man and the lives of the 5. Had the one man not been on the tracks, the 5 still would have survived. For more information see the Principle of Double Effect. Yet in the other scenario, you directly will the death of the fat man to save the 5. The 5 other men cannot be saved unless the fat man is killed. There is a direct causal relationship.

Problem Solved.


I like Mike's answer


What if we had 1000 people on the trolley instead of 5. Wouldn't it be a moral obligation to sacrifice the fat man for the greater good?
If changing the number is sufficient to eliminate the difference between the direct and indirect approach, then in my opinion we eventually have to adopt the consequentialist philosophy. And the only explanation why it feels wrong to sacrifice the fat man to save 5 is due to our moral inability to recognize that when faced with 2 terrible options we should choose the lesser of the 2 evils.


In the original trolley situation, whoever is able to pull the switch is aware of the man on the track onto which he can divert the trolley. So there is a causal relationship between pulling the lever and diverting the trolley, and there is a causal relationship between diverting the trolley and killing the fat man, so by the transitive law of equality, there is a causal relationship between pulling the lever and killing the man, just as there is between pushing the fat man and stopping the trolley from atop the bridge. My point is that you are aware of the sacrifice, and that you put the value of the five lives over the value of the one. The distinction here to be made is not just that you are saving five lives instead, but that you are saving five lives with murder, which is more immoral than neglect. Which is why I disagree with your conclusion.


The "throw the switch" hypothetical seems very clear - if the trolley is diverted from the path where it would hit the five people, it can't hit the five people. So the person answering the question can be pretty comfortable with the moral calculation - guaranteed to save five people and only kill one.

But the "throw the fat man on the tracks" hypothetical makes assumptions that are intuitively difficult for people to accept. How do you know throwing someone on the tracks doesn't result in six deaths instead of five? You may tell people you are questioning to accept the question's assumptions, but I would suggest that a significant number of the people responding probably nevertheless resisted the assumption because of its implausibility.


My Constitutional Law professor always said that virtually all Con Law comes down to the question of "who decides". Who gets the right (and obligation) to make a decision that affects others and on what basis.

I submit that in the Trolly case, Jones is not authorized to decide and should refrain from doing anything.

Firstly, Jones does not know whether his assessment of the outcome of sacrificing the fat man will indeed save the 5 people, nor whether in the absence of any action that it is certain that the five will die. No person is omniscient or prescient with perfect accuracy. Therefore, Jones must first admit that his assessment of the situation and the options may be wrong in fact. Jones' expectations of outcomes can be no more than his guesses, and any action he takes to cause the fat man to die may result in an additional death (the fat man PLUS the five people in cease the fat man does not stop the trolly - Jones takes an ineffective action that kills the fat man pointlessly) or may cause the fat man to die for no reason because the five people would not have been killed even if no action had been taken and the fat man was not killed. Furthermore, the fat man may be more valuable to society (suppose he will invent a drug to cure cancer or other intangible value added by him). Thus, Jones should not substitute his judgement of outcomes and valuations and refrain from action.

Secondly, it is not possible even from a utilitarian perspective to judge the outcome of the death of five people as worse than the death of one different person. Take an example where the five people are all convicted serial child rapists and murderers (or all terminally ill late-stage cancer patients) and the fat man is a creative young scientist working on a cure for childhood cancers that will spare 50,000 children per year from early death from cancer.

Since Jones can neither be certain of his ability to judge the outcomes and probabiltiies nor his ability to weigh the relative values of the five people versus the fat man, Jones must do nothing. Jones does not have the moral authority to take steps that result in the fat man's death. He must do nothing.


No matter what! I think both sides are still consider as a killer. First of all, you are a bystander standing near the switch. If you don't switch you just kill the 5 people and if you switch you just kill someone as well. If you think you are not the killer because you let the trolley run over the five you should feel guilty at some point just like the one who switch the trolley. This stuff really mess up mind. Everyone thinks before make a choice and yes whatever happen it happen.


Unless were fast enough to remove the five out from the track to at least the side maybe then we might be able to save everyone. In reality we might scream to the trolley "stop you idiot"..Or run away to save our self and forget that it never happen.


If "the fat man" who is closer to the trolley has time to throw -or be thrown- in it's path, why don't those 5 men just get out of the way? #personalresponsibility


Mr. Mark Kaskin, I am curious about your claim that it "is not possible even from a utilitarian perspective to judge the outcome of the death of five people as worse than the death of one different person". What, precisely, do you mean by this? Is your claim one about the practicality of the situation - the cost of accessing information, making a decision, dealing with errors, etc. - or are you making a stronger claim that even in theory no decision is possible? Because part of your counter-example raises doubts about this claim. You say the fat man may be a scientist who will develop a cure for cancer which will save thousands of people every year. Yet there is something odd about this claim, since you are actually implicitly are making a life-to-life comparison here (the lives of thousands of people on an ongoing basis vs. the lives of 5 people). A utilitarian might well respond that life-to-life comparisons can be made as long as all of the relevant costs associated with the calculation are taken into considerations (so that the value of the fat man's life is adjusted so that it's worth includes the expected value of the lives he may save if his research bears fruit).

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