05
Aug
09

trolley ethics

trolley diversion case

trolley diversion case

There is a huge literature on various cases involving deaths caused by trolleys. To some (utilitarians) these writings have become laughably tangled and complicated.

The reason though, for this complexity, is that some of our firm moral judgments seem to be in contradiction with each other.

For example, many people believe that it is impermissible to cut up someone to distribute his organs to five others in order to save their lives. However, many people believe that if a trolley is hurtling toward five people, and I could divert the trolley onto another track where only one person sits, it would be permissible to do so (in fact it seems obligatory to divert the train). Why can’t I kill one for his organs to save five if its permissible to divert the trolley onto the track with one person in order to save the five on the main track? Further, it seems that even if I could divert the trolley to save the five, I couldn’t push someone on to the tracks in order to stop the trolley.

One answer is that you don’t intend the death of the one on the diverted trolley track. In other words, his death is not essential to your purpose. Your goal of diverting the trolley would be achieved whether the one died or did not die; whether he was there or not.You do however intend the death of someone you push into the way of the trolley. Without him, your goal of saving the five could not be achieved. In the push case, you use an innocent bystander as a means to save the five, whereas in the diversion case, you only foresee the death of the one as a side effect of your action; not a necessary prerequisite for your action.

There are many complications with trolley cases, but here’s one. Why couldn’t someone who wants to push the man in the way of the trolley just say that he didn’t intend the man’s death, but rather only intended the breaking of all his bone and organs. His death is just a foreseeable consequence of a collision with a train. This would be the same as the diversion case. After all, the person who diverts the train would say the same thing: “I don’t intend the death of the one on the diversion track, but his death is one result from me diverting a train on to his tracks.”

One response might be sharpen the point. “Look, in the push case , you can’t protect the five without the hitting of the train against the one that you push, but in the diversion case, you can protect the five by diversion whether the one was present or not.” (this logic is similar for the organ case).

The problem with this response is a problem similar to the one I discussed here. Imagine a case in which the one is blocking the entrance to a small grotto out of the path of the train and that there is enough time for me to move the five into the grotto except for his presence at its mouth. It seems impermissible for me to throw the person on the tracks and then move the five into the grotto. But notice that if this is wrong, it is not because the one’s presence is necessary for the safety of the five. The opposite is true: if the one was not present, I could save the five with no problem.

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