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Suppose you are driving a trolley. As you are driving the trolley, you notice that five people are on the track the trolley is headed, so you try to use the brakes to stop the trolley from going any further. Unfortunately, the brakes are not working, and your only option is to use the lever, which could steer you to the other track. But as you are about to steer on to the other track, you notice that one man is on that track. There is no way—not enough time—to alert either side to move out of the way. You are left with only one choice—either you pull the lever and divert the trolley to the other track and risk one life or you do nothing and risk five lives. Should you pull the lever or should you just leave it be? Are immoral actions justified if they produce ‘good’ results?
The trolley problem originates from the thought experiment that Philippa Foot sets for us in her essay, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect.” Her essay introduces us to Deontological Ethics, an approach that focuses on “which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted…and guides and assesses our choices of what we ought to do, in contrast to those that guide and assess what kind of person we are and should be” (Alexander and Moore). Her trolley problem forces us to experience a situation where we have to make a decision when there are apparently no good choices. Do we choose the action that leaves us with the best outcome or do we refrain from taking any action that could lead to someone’s death? And if we choose to go with the best outcome, would that mean that we intend the death of the one person? From a Deontologist’s perspective, a Deontologist would choose not to switch the lever because switching it becomes a form of killing someone and killing someone is wrong, not intrinsically good. The morality of our actions seems to be based on our intentions behind the action, rather than the actual consequences that lie. According to Foot, if we were to choose between two choices, we would steer the trolley to let one die rather than have five people die, in which a Utilitarian would also do the same. However, Foot seems to reject Utilitarianism, because the notion behind it seems to make mistakes when it comes to the nature of morality. Essentially, Utilitarianism informs that “the morally right decision is the one that produces the most good” (Driver) and in this case, the answer seems to be to maneuver the trolley towards the smaller group instead of the larger group—as five lives outweigh the one—even if it means that achieving that outcome requires condemning someone to death. By rejecting the Utilitarian way of thinking, Foot seems to suggest that we should not judge the situation and that we should use the Doctrine of Double Effect as an alternative, which “explains the permissibility of an action that causes a serious harm” (McIntyre). I concur with this because when we are stuck in this type of situation, we seem to judge according to the Doctrine of Double Effect rather than the philosophical notion of Utilitarianism. When we judge alongside the Doctrine of Double Effect, we choose to save five people out of oblique intentions (an action that is neither an end nor a means but instead a foreseen consequence), whereas a Utilitarian directs the course of action out of direct intentions (an action that is an end in itself or a means to an end).
The Doctrine of Double Effect seems to work as an alternative when it comes to solving the trolley problem but what happens when certain aspects of the trolley problem change? Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem” exposes us to an interesting, yet unsettling variant of the trolley problem. Suppose you are put in the same situation except you are on a footbridge over the tracks. You notice that the trolley approaching the bridge is out of control and you also see that there are five people on the track at the back of the bridge. You realize that it is impossible for them to escape their fate as the banks are too steep and having them move off the tracks would also put their lives on hold. There is another person on the footbridge with you—a fat man. Throwing the fat man off the bridge would successfully stop the trolley just in time from killing five people. Unfortunately, this would mean that the fat man would instantly die from the impact. Which, then, becomes the more ethical choice?
Most would say that the most ethical choice would be to not push the fat man off the bridge, and the Doctrine of Double Effect defends the morality of choosing the option to save one person instead of five people in this particular variant of the trolley problem. Joseph Mangan provides a rubric where we can judge whether an action is considered morally permissible or not: “(1) the action in itself from its very object is good or at least indifferent, (2) the good effect and not the evil effect must be intended, (3) the good effect should not be produced by means of the evil effect, and (4) there should be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect. The fourth condition, the proportionality condition is usually understood to involve determining if the extent of the harm is adequately offset by the magnitude of the proposed benefit” (McIntyre). The differences between the footbridge problem and the trolley problem are subtle but immense as the permissibility of an action depends on whether the death of the innocent person is a means to or a side effect of saving the five people and unlike the trolley problem, the footbridge problem puts more weight on whether one is doing wrong intentionally. In the trolley problem, it is permissible to switch the lever as the person controlling the lever foresees the death of one person as a side effect of saving the five, but does not intend the action. However, in the footbridge problem, it is impermissible to push someone off the bridge as it involves intending harm to the one as a means of saving the five. It becomes more difficult, altogether, to justify one’s reason for pushing the fat man over the bridge as doing so would not mean that one is saving five by killing the one. If the fat man was not on the bridge, and instead there was someone who was less fat than the fat man or no one at all, we would not be able to do anything, and even if we did, the trolley would have proceeded towards the five, and here we would have cost six lives. The difference is that in the trolley problem we either kill five or the one person, whereas, in the footbridge problem, we either kill the one or no one. The Doctrine of Double Effect not only illuminates why we are prepared to switch the lever in the trolley problem, but it also explains why we are not prepared to push someone off the bridge.
Many respond that they would engage in saving five lives for the trolley problem but resolve not to do anything to save five people for its variants such as the footbridge problem. Does that mean that our moral intuitions are not valid or reliable as they are not always consistent or logical? Not necessarily—our moral intuitions seem to be valid and reliable even though our answers may not be as consistent. If I were in the position of the driver in the trolley problem, I would switch the lever to save five people, even if it means allowing one innocent person to die. My actions can be explained through Consequentialism as Consequentialism reasons that my actions are moral as it carries “the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences” (Haines). The overall consequences of my actions produce less harm than it would have if I chose not to switch the lever. The Doctrine of Double Effect also deems my action to divert as permissible. And in the same way, when I come across variants of the trolley problem such as the footbridge problem, I would engage in resolving the issue in a vastly different way—in a deontological way. I would not push the man off the bridge to save five people because then I would be killing someone, not letting someone die. Although it seems better for five people to live, it also seems wrong, in this context, to let an innocent person die. In the same way, the Doctrine of Double Effect is still involved although I am responding to the situation differently, which explains my reason for not pushing the fat man over the bridge. The examination of all hypothetical cases undoubtedly involves the application of the Doctrine of Double Effect, but in some cases, the Doctrine of Double Effect does not seem to be the only answer as the collaboration of other theories. In the explanation provided for the trolley problem where Consequentialism plays a role in justifying my actions, it seems that perhaps the Doctrine of Double Effect approves of the moral theory behind Consequentialism. The Doctrine of Double Effect, alongside many other moral theories such as Consequentialism, seem to find the logical reasons behind our actions and strengthen our case.
Now let us say that we are yet again put into another hypothetical scenario where the trolley is heading towards the five people. We can avoid hitting the five by going around a loop, but that would mean that we would hit the fat man who is in the middle of the loop, which would stop the trolley from moving any further. What do we do in this situation? In the loop case, our intuitions tell us to kill the one person, same as the trolley problem. But how and why do our intuitions change in this case when compared to the footbridge case? The difference is that in the footbridge case, we let the five die, because we have some qualms associated with pushing someone onto the tracks. If the fat man was not there, technically I could switch the lever and continue on the loop endlessly, and the five people would not be killed. But since that is not the case, we redirect the trolley. However, doing so seems to violate the Doctrine of Double Effect, not because we intend that the one be hit, but because there is a possibility that we might not intend the greater good—that the five be saved from the trolley—which justifies the bad side effect. Essentially this means that we intend it but do not intend a means necessary to it.
The loop case seems to render the Doctrine of Double Effect false. Are there any alternatives that explain why we redirect the trolley? Frances Kamm proposes the Doctrine of Triple Effect, which seems to accommodate the loop case. The Doctrine of Triple Effect, as Liao says, “uses the because/in order to distinction, where it permits the situation we redirect the trolley because we believe that the one will be hit, not in order that the one is hit” (Liao). When we turn the trolley in the loop case, we do not do so in order to hit the one as a means, we do so only because the one is there. Although Kamm’s proposal seems to be reasonable in supporting the permissibility of turning in the loop case, it also seems to be problematic as we can still see the action of redirecting as intending the death of the one as a means. Turning, therefore, becomes impermissible for the reasons given by the Doctrine of the Double Effect.
There are no definitive solutions to thought experiments like the trolley problem or its variants. The whole enterprise is a rather challenging ordeal; it also proves to be a riveting process as we are restricted to only two options. The way we respond to each situation reflects our reasons and rational argumentation regarding our explanation as to why we place more significance on one of the options instead of the other. We have a monopoly over deciding the fate of the people or person in each scenario, whether we like it or not and no matter how difficult it is to decide.? And perhaps the combination of moral theories could work to reinforce an explanation for our ethical intuitions in the trolley case and its variations.