Thursday, September 19, 2019

Cupcakes and trolleys

A trolley is heading towards a person lying on the tracks. Also lying on the tracks is a delicious cupcake. You could redirect the trolley to a second track where there is a different person lying on the tracks, but no cupcake.

Utilitarianism suggests that, as long as you are able to enjoy the cupcake under the circumstances and not feel bad about the whole affair, you have a moral duty to redirect the trolley in order to save the cupcake for yourself. This is morally perverse.

Besides showing that utilitarianism is false, this example shows that the proportionality condition in the Principle of Double Effect cannot simply consist in a simple calculation comparing the goods and bads resulting from the action. For there is something morally disproportionate in choosing who lives and dies for the sake of a cupcake.


Walter Van den Acker said...


I think you are begging the question here against utilitarianism. Of course, this is morally perverse under your concept of morality, but not under utilitarianism.
Now, I am not a utilitarian, so I admit that I also think this is perverse. But that is because I hold to a non-utilitarian concept of morality.

steve said...

Alex is such a killjoy. He just set up a thought-experiment where I can have my cupcake and eat it too, then snatches the cupcake away at the last moment!

Christopher Michael said...

But by stipulation, you aren’t choosing who lives and who dies for the sake of a cupcake, you are choosing who lives and who dies for the sake of the person who lives and a cupcake. What’s wrong with that?

Helen Watt said...

Isn't it a thought too many: if you cared about human life as you should, you'd wouldn't have this particularly trivial motivation, especially as it leads you to be causally responsible for a death. There seem to be two points here (a) the fact that it's wrong to choose who lives for the mere sake of a cupcake and (b) the fact that it's wrong to cause (however unintentionally) someone's death in the course of getting a cupcake while saving someone else.

Even if the second doesn't apply and it's a mere case of letting die, the first can be an issue. Imagine you're an ambulance driver who arrives at work to find two post-it notes calling you to a life-and-death situation. Perhaps it's wrong to rescue Mrs Smith, not Mrs Jones, because Mrs Smith will offer you a cupcake. In contrast, if the stakes are raised, the situation seems to change (Mrs Smith is the mother of your line-manager who will sack you if you rescue Mrs Jones - or Mrs Smith has an attractive friend staying with her whom you'd like to ask on a date). I'm not sure it's wrong to be thinking of rescue-plus-saving-my-job, or rescue-plus-asking-out-so-and-so - but only because the extra motive is less trivial, and because you are unintentionally letting die not unintentionally killing.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's just occurred to me that we do this sort of thing all the time in a chaotic universe. You buy a cupcake and it slightly affects the timing of many events in many people's lives (say, the person who sells it to you and the people in line behind you), which then affects who is and is not conceived, and hence who lives and who dies. But surely this should not keep us from cupcakes.

So I think Helen is right: it's an issue of motivations and virtue. In the ordinary chaos case, the lives are not emotionally salient. In the trolley case, they ought to be.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Technically, yes.

I suppose there are two ways one could be deliberating.

1. Oh no, the trolley is going to squish a cupcake! I need to redirect the trolley away from it. Oh, wait, there is someone on the other track. But there is someone on this track, too. So it's a wash as far as people's lives are concerned, and I might as well save the cupcake.

2. Oh no, the trolley is going to squish someone! I need to redirect the trolley away from them. Oh, wait, there is someone on the other track. So it's pointless to redirect. But, wait again, this track has a cupcake. So now there is a point to redirecting.

You're thinking of the deliberation as 2.

Both sound vicious to me. I think 1 is a more egregious violation of the proportionality constraint in Double Effect.

Helen Watt said...


Yes - of course in reality, redirecting is worse than pointless: people have a prima facie right to their own safe position which should not be consciously at least switched to a dangerous position just because you're very fond of cupcakes. But you're right: in (1) you're thinking primarily of cupcakes which seems even worse than (2) thinking also of cupcakes when you should be thinking only of human lives at least when it comes to your effective motivations. And as this is switching a safe with a dangerous position and even killing, not even stipulating that your boss will fire you if the cupcake is squished is going to do the trick.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This prima facie right is one I had never heard of. I can see how it could help with some problems, though. I'll need to think about this.

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Sam Harper said...

This is the most interesting trolley problem I've come across all day. I'm going to bring this up at Thanksgiving dinner next week. My sister loves cupcakes, so it should be interesting.