Miscellany: on the notorious “Trolley Problem,” ethics, and the equivocations of happiness


On the notorious “Trolley Problem” thought experiment in ethics

Brief editorial: The only proper sacrifice is made on behalf of oneself and never on behalf of others. That is the constitutive difference between sacrifice and scapegoating. The Trolley Problem and its variants illuminate the latent inclination to “play God,” as it were, which may also be called the “Promethean impulse” or “Luciferic impulse.” Incidentally, God himself gave us a model for how to fill this office and it does not have anything to do with sacrificing other people. Caiaphas and Jesus are foils in this respect and present the antithesis of Utilitarian and Christian ethics respectively: “consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50). Jesus, on the other hand, will not even speak up in his own defense and thus embodies the impulse diametrically opposite to that which motivates the scapegoat mechanism.


I think you bring up a good point: that there can be sins of omission as well as sins of commission, so to speak. Your example of climate change is a good one to illustrate this point. Nevertheless, I am left wondering how pertinent it is to the Trolley-problem scenario. It is true that many people are inclined to pull the level and throw the trolley to the other track, thereby sacrificing one person so that five persons may live. The math seems very simple in this case, and it is easy to construe the problem as one of simple arithmetic because levers and locomotives encourage mechanical thinking. For this reason, it can useful for the purposes of the thought experiment to change the scenery but preserve the scenario: imagine you are a doctor and five patients come in displaying acute and fatal organ failures. At the same time, you are overseeing another patient who is under anesthesia for a routine medical procedure. Given your expertise, you know that you could harvest that single patient’s organs so that the five others will survive. In spite of the single patient’s death, you can comfort yourself to know that it was “for the greater good.” How does this scenario sit with you? Do you still think it is unnecessary to distinguish between killing someone and failing to prevent a person from being killed?

In my opinion, the only person on whose behalf we are entitled to make sacrificial decisions is ourselves but perhaps you can illuminate some aspect of this problem that has escaped me. 


Thank you for laying out the notorious “Trolley Problem” in such a concise way, Johnny. I agree with your moral intuitions about this, and with your observation that utilitarianism propagates the scapegoat mechanism in principle. That is one of the reasons that I struggle to maintain the impartiality that is becoming of a professor whenever I am tasked with outlining the utilitarian doctrine. It would be relatively innocuous if utilitarianism stood in patent contradiction to our moral sense. In that case, our “moral immune systems” would immediately recognise an enemy and set to work to dismantle it. But instead, utilitarianism appeals to a sufficient number of our moral intuitions so as to render it plausible, if not downright attractive to people seeking a theoretical framework for ethics. 

I think you have offered an exemplary demonstration of critical thinking by parsing out the concept of “killing someone” from “failing to prevent someone from being killed.” I also think that what your analysis has revealed stands very ill with utilitarianism. Clearly, the distinction is one of intention or motive and the doctrine of utilitarianism has no way to account for this distinction. In fact, it systematically discounts intention for the sake of formulating a “quantitative” approach to ethics. That such an approach has been, and largely remains, the ideal of the natural sciences does not, ipso facto, mean that it is correct.

On experience and reality

I think that is an excellent observation about the fact that many people do not wish for satisfaction alone, but rather for satisfaction that is the result of having contributed in a positive way to the real world. A person might object that, in either case, one is only seeking satisfaction and in the second instance, one has merely succeeded in placing conditions on one’s satisfaction. But I think this is all wrong since it puts the cart before the horse, as it were. What I have in mind is that the only reason we receive satisfaction from making a difference in the world is because we find this endeavor to be intrinsically meaningful. Put another way, if we didn’t find it meaningful, we would not receive satisfaction from having achieved it. This is the reverse of the utilitarian doctrine that views satisfaction as the end and making a difference as a mere means to it. 

Here is an interesting and perhaps somewhat troublesome question: suppose it were possible to separate doing good from feeling good about having done it. How would this influence our conduct? Fortunately, natural law (which, as St Thomas defines it, is a participation in divine law) dictates that, through reason, we are able to discern the Good and therefore be pleased by the things which ought to please us. As a result, the satisfaction of a thoughtful person ordinarily serves as an acceptable guide.

On ethics and science

I especially appreciate the connection you drew between ethics on the one hand, and science or physics or metaphysics (for lack of better words) on the other. Basically, the question pertains to the essential relation of doing and knowing. It is really senseless for me to attempt an answer to the question “How ought I to act?” if I lack a clear conception of what kind of place the world is in which I am to act. It is interesting to notice—and this observation easily goes amiss because the course is organized topically rather than historically—that the modern approaches to ethics increasingly attempt to abstract the ethical question from the scientific one. This is consistent with the trend toward specialization that we can observe in all spheres of life. For the Ancient and Medieval thinkers, by contrast, ethics and science were both contemplated in an integral connection with a comprehensive conception of the cosmos.

On happiness and its equivocations

I indicated that I am slowly working through the composition of an ethics reader that I can use for this course and part of my motivation for it is my dissatisfaction with the lack of distinction many contemporary offering provide between two substantially different meanings of “happiness.” Shafer-Landau, for instance, offers no comparison between this term as it is employed in his presentations of Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics despite that these schools regard the term in fundamentally different ways. For the first, happiness follows from pleasure while for the second, happiness follows from achieving a state of flourishing or fulfilment of one’s potential. The Greek words hedonia (ἡδονία), which refers to pleasure, and eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which literally indicates something like “the state of being in good stead with one’s conscience,” capture this difference. That fact that the English term “happiness” remains equivocal as to which of these connotations is supremely unfortunate. Moreover, that J. S. Mill employed the term “happiness” to describe the summum bonum of the utilitarian doctrine while, at the same time, many translators have opted to render the term eudaimonia, as it appears in Aristotle’s seminal text The Nicomachean Ethics with the same English word has led to untold confusion amongst students of philosophy. But you seem to have seen through this source of deception.

The Trolley Problem: Who do you save? | Wall Street Oasis

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