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Answering the Trolley Problem

Are we allowed to pull the lever or not? Does your intention make a difference? The classic trolley problem DOES have an answer! Fr. Sebastian Walshe walks through the details of this contemporary moral dilemma.

Caller: Father, you said there’s no connection between the murder of one and the salvation of the other, that’s a contrived connection. So a situation that was put to us today is the classic “trolley problem,” what is the moral thing to do? And something about that situation struck me as “Well, this isn’t realistic,” because it seems to paint a very black-and-white picture where there is no God, and I guess I just want your take on: how do you answer someone who proposes that kind of situation?

Host: You’re sitting by the side of the trolley tracks, here comes a trolley out of control rolling down the hill; and if the trolley goes one way it’s going to kill five people, if it goes the other way it’s going to kill one person; and you pull the lever to make it avoid the five people, but then it kills that one person; haven’t you done evil to bring about good? That’s the classic trolley problem. Father, help us out of it.

Fr. Sebastian Walshe: Great. So this is a good example that helps to distinguish between the consequences of an act and the object of the act. So this would be a really good test case to show the difference between consequentialism and a traditional Catholic morality.

So let me give you two versions of the trolley problem. The one version is that the trolley’s coming down and it’s going towards the five people; you pull the lever and it it goes down the other track and it hits the one person on the other track and kills him. That’s version one.

Version two: the trolley’s coming down towards the five people, you run over and you shoot the guy, the one guy on the track, and then you switch the lever and the trolley runs over a dead guy, right, and then you get the same result, right? One dead guy.

What’s the difference between those two cases? In the one case, what you have is: you directly did an act of murder, right? The object and the intention, the very object that you were intending in your act, was to kill someone. You murder the guy and then you let the trolley go on his side. Whereas in the case where you’re just pulling the lever for the trolley, the object there is to switch the trolley from one lane to the other, and it’s not intrinsically related to killing people, right? It happens that there’s someone on the track, and you foresee, as an effect of the act, that it will kill someone; but switching trolley car lanes is not intrinsically evil one way or the other, but it might have an effect that you foresee. And that’s way different than an object where you’re directly intending the death of someone.

So in that case what you have is the principle of double effect. And the principle of double effect says that as long as what you’re doing isn’t intrinsically bad, then you can look at the effects, and if both effects are going to be evil, you can choose the one with the lesser evil and it can still be a morally good act. So the answer, when all’s said and done in this kind of strange hypothetical—which probably never has happened in the history of the world and never will—but in this strange hypothetical, the answer is: you pull the lever so that it goes down the track with the one person.

That’s assuming that the five people and the one person, there’s nothing else you know about them other than the fact that they’re human beings, right? There might be some other factor involved that could cause you to change your decision, but in any case, from the standpoint of that moral dilemma, it’s not morally wrong to change the direction of the trolley. That’s not intrinsically evil. It would be intrinsically evil to go up and kill a guy and then change the direction of the trolley so he runs over a dead guy, or something.

Host: And I have to say, this requires a fine distinction that many people are unwilling to make, and I have to say this is what strikes me as part of the moral danger of our era, is people just roll their eyes and go “Well, you’re saying the same thing. You’re doing a bad thing,” and they will not listen to the fact that no, the the principle of double effect is actually a way of adhering to the good and doing the good, making sure that you’re doing the good that you can do and that you are avoiding evil. This is not at all the same thing, but I do feel like our society is just unwilling, often, to make fine moral distinctions. And I’m not saying that this one is terribly fine, but it’s unwilling—

Fr. Sebastian Walshe: There’s a famous line in Chesterton’s—I think it’s in Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” where he says: “Fine points make a big difference.” He says: “One small change in vocabulary, and all the finest art in Europe would have been destroyed.” He’s talking about the Iconoclast heresy. And it says: “Fine distinctions can sometimes have immense consequences.” So sometimes, you know, a lot hinges on fine distinctions.

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