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Trolley Problem and moral theory which best resolves it - Essay Example

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In this paragraph, I will introduce the moral theory of utilitarianism (Bentham, 1789) and its ability to resolve the Trolley Problem. A form of consequentialism, based on the idea that ‘whether actions are morally right or wrong depends on their effects’ (Nathanson 2014), utilitarians regard the moral to be the one that produces the best consequences. …
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Trolley Problem and Moral Theory
which Best Resolves it
In this essay, I will examine which moral theory best resolves the original Trolley Problem, as well as the version of the Fat Man. I will firstly consider the extent to which moral theories, such as utilitarianism, the Doctrine of Double Effect, deontology and altruism can resolve both situations. In doing this I will conclude that the Doctrine of Double Effect is the most effective but perhaps a combination of utilitarianism and deontology may also be considered.
The original Trolley Problem considers the following issue:
…you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there comes into view ahead five track workmen… so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas they don't work. Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off... You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately… there is one track workman on that spur of track. He can no more get off the track in time than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto him. Is it morally permissible for you to turn the trolley? (Thomson 1985, page 1395)
Most people would turn the trolley (BBC, 2014), indicating that saving five people and killing one, therefore choosing to save as many lives as possible, would be the permissible option. Some would even go as far to say that there is a moral obligation to turn the trolley and that simply being present in this situation, having the capacity to impact on the result, constitutes a commitment to participate. If this is the case, choosing to do nothing could be immoral if one considers five lives more important than one.
Alternatively, others may feel responsible for changing the projected course of the trolley, having killed the workman on the alternate track. Since the death of the five workmen is already foreseen in the situation, moving to another track may constitute a participation in the death of the one workman, making one partially responsible for the death when otherwise no one was responsible. It is down to one’s preferred moral theory to determine how they would react in this circumstance.
In this paragraph, I will introduce the moral theory of utilitarianism (Bentham, 1789) and its ability to resolve the Trolley Problem. A form of consequentialism, based on the idea that ‘whether actions are morally right or wrong depends on their effects’ (Nathanson 2014), utilitarians regard the moral to be the one that produces the best consequences. Utilitarians therefore believe that saving five lives versus saving one will result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people so would choose the alternate track.
However, utilitarianism has flaws undermining its ability to resolve the Trolley Problem. If I introduce the varied version of the original problem, ‘the Fat Man’, most would think it impermissible to push the fat man, choosing to let five die. This would be against utilitarian views. In this version:
…you are standing on a footbridge over the trolley track. You can see a trolley hurtling down the track, out of control. You turn around to see where the trolley is headed, and there are five workmen on the track… It just so happens that standing next to you on the footbridge is a fat man… watching the trolley; all you have to do is to give him a little shove, and over the railing he will go, onto the track in the path of the trolley. (Thomson 1985, page 1409)
Despite the consequences of both trolley variations being that five people live as the result of one person's death, the fact that one seems more permissible than the other reveals a distinction between killing a person as a use to save five, as in the Fat Man, and letting a person die as a consequence of saving five, as in the original problem (Woollard 2016). This goes against utilitarianism, stating no distinction between these scenarios. According to utilitarians an action is considered morally wrong if it fails to maximise happiness, in this example letting the five men die so one survives. However, this seems to deliver the wrong verdict in the case of the Fat Man. Therefore, whilst utilitarianism may be an effective moral theory in solving the original Trolley Problem it does not resolve the Fat Man, as it would be morally wrong to kill him as a means to an end. It is clear to me that utilitarianism does not take into account human morality and moral intuition making it unable to determine what action is permissible in the example of the Fat Man.
I will now explore a notion which does consider human morality, the Doctrine of Double Effect (Foot 1967). This theory states that ‘sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect… of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end’ (McIntyre 2014). According to the Doctrine of Double Effect it is permissible to turn the trolley in the original problem, resulting in the death of one workmen as a side effect, but forbidden to use the fat man’s death as a means to save the five workmen. This to me seems a more liable theory in resolving these situations than utilitarianism. However, it must be cited that there are exceptions to it being immoral to use people as a means to an end. If, for example, the fat man happened to be the orchestrator of the trolley problem and he is in fact about to cause the death of the five people many would feel it ok to use him to stop the train. Therefore, even though he is still being used, it is now considered morally permissible due to his worse intentions.
Further analysing the Doctrine of Double Effect as a resolution to the Trolley Problem I will consider the theory of deontology, of which the Doctrine of Double Effect is a version of. Deontological entails that we are morally obligated to act in accordance with a certain set of rules, moral intuitions considered to be ‘controlling ethical norms, from which all particular ethical rules derive’ (Kant 1999 cited in Chapman 2014), regardless of outcome, considering the nature of actions in justifying them as moral, instead of simply the consequences, as in utilitarianism. Thus, for duty-based deontologists some things are absolute wrongs, for example killing or lying.
Therefore, within the Trolley Problem deontologists would refuse to divert the trolley and push the fat man as killing is an absolute wrong. I could not then consider deontology as a moral theory that could comfortably resolve the Trolley Problem and the Fat Man variation as, whilst I do believe killing is wrong, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, in my view, someone has not committed an impermissible act if they have killed someone in absolute self-defense. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, if having the chance to save five lives results in the death of one, I would consider it immoral to do nothing.
Lastly I will consider moralistic altruism, in which ‘an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent.’ (Fieser n.d). Thus, with regards to resolving the Trolley Problem altruistic theory would involve throwing one’s self on the tracks to stop the trolley. However, agreeing with Freiedrich Nietzsche’s (Nietzsche cited in Leiter 2015) criticism, altruism leads to degrading and demeaning oneself, hindering self-development, when regarding others as more important. Furthermore, I believe that most would be unable to sacrifice themselves and that if altruism was the correct resolution it would be a more common and expected solution to such situations.
In conclusion, I would cite the Doctrine of Double effect to be the most effective moral theory in which to solve the Trolley Problem as it justifies why it would be moral to redirect the trolley, saving five whilst one dies as a result, but not permissible to push the fat man, as saving five by using another’s life is wrong. However, I would also add that perhaps a combination of utilitarianism and deontology would be more applicable to situations outside the Trolley Problem. For example, many people would acknowledge that killing innocent individuals is wrong, considering deontology, but confronted with the need to kill somebody to spare more individuals, they will say that it is correct to do this, citing utilitarianism. Moreover, it is considered ok to kill an individual if the death is inevitable or in catastrophic circumstances, where unless you kill one individual several individuals will die as a result. Therefore, it is wise to abide by our moral duties as outlined by deontology apart from in such cases when utilitarianism is considered a more righteous approach (Nahra 2013).
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