Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Trolley Problem in the Context of Killing and Letting Die

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 9, 2010

You are perhaps familiar with the Trolley problem. It is a question of whether you should kill one to save many. Most people say that yes, you should flip the switch, killing the one but letting the five live. Some people say that you should not. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this latter position is a deontological one. This argument states that each person is an end in himself and not just a means to an end. It would therefore be disrespectful to the one person to use him as a means to save the five.

Whether or not this argument can apply relies on the distinction between killing and letting die. Let us assume for a moment that killing is worse than letting die; let us assume that if you let someone die when you could have prevented it, you are not responsible for the death. In that case, it is not disrespectful to allow the five people to die; they were going to die anyway, and you did not cause their death. But it is disrespectful to kill the one person to save the other five, because you are directly causing the death.

Now let us assume that killing and letting die are equivalent when all else is equal. If you are able to prevent a death but you don’t, you are just as responsible for the death as if you had killed the person yourself. In this case, you are responsible for the five people dying even though you didn’t directly cause it, simply because you could have prevented it. In this light, the trolley situation is somewhat muddled. No matter what you do, you are disrespecting at least one person as an end. From there I can see two stances. It is arguable that it does not matter what you do since either way you are treating someone as a means rather than an end. It is also arguable that it is better to be respectful to more rational beings than to fewer, so you should kill the one rather than let the five die (remember that here we are assuming the equivalence of killing and letting die).

If we are upholding moral duty, it matters greatly whether or not letting die is equivalent to killing. It is thus important to examine killing and letting die in the context of scenarios that it may not seem to be directly related to.

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2 Responses to “The Trolley Problem in the Context of Killing and Letting Die”

  1. Rob F said

    I think that the answer to this moral dilemma lies in what exactly the person who can alter the course of events is doing as well as their intent. With regards to the basic trolley problem, the actor is deflecting the course of an unfortunate event that is taking place; they did not intend to kill the one so much as save the five. Basically, in order for some to live, the other(s) must die.

    Consider the fat man variant: Same situation, but you can stop the trolley by pushing a heavy weight off a bridge into the path of the trolley; an immensely fat man is the only weight heavy enough to stop it. I think it is impermissible to push the fat man off the bridge. Although he has no more of a right not to be run over than anyone else, he also has the right not to be pushed in front of a trolley; basically I agree with Judith Thomson in this aspect. You intend to kill the fat man in order to save the five. You are not deflecting harm into the path of the fat man; rather you are causing harm to come to the fat man.

    Now consider this form of the TP: you kidnap someone and decide to kill them by having them run over with an out of control trolley. You tie them to the railroad tracks and flip the switch, sending the trolley over them. Coincidentally, by flipping the switch, you prevented the trolley from running over five people who had been tied to the other track. Now, in this form, what I think you did was impermissible. You intended to kill the one, and saving the five is just a “side effect” of this.

    Remember that in the first case, had the one person not existed, you would still have deflected the trolley down the empty track, whereas had the fat man not existed you could never save the five. In this sense, you are using the fat man as a means to save the five, whereas you are not doing so with the one person on the track because you would do the same thing whether they exist or not.

  2. phynnboi said

    I take it we’re assuming that each of the people is of roughly equal, uh…, utility? Like, if the one person were a billionaire altruist and the five were all convicted serial rapists (or worse), I bet people would tend to answer quite differently. 🙂

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