Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Doing, allowing and trolleys

Consider a trolley problem where the trolley is heading for:

  • Path A with two people,

but you can redirect it to:

  • Path B with one person.

If that’s the whole story, and everyone is a stranger to you, redirection is surely permitted, and probably even required.

But add one more ingredient: the one person on Path B is you yourself. I am far from sure of this, but I suspect that you aren’t morally required to save two strangers at the expense of your life, though of course it would be praiseworthy if you did. (On the other hand, once the number on Path A is large enough, I think it becomes obligatory to save them.)

Now consider a reverse version. Suppose that the trolley is heading for Path B, where you are. Are you permitted to redirect it to Path A? I am inclined to think not.

So we have these two judgments:

  1. You aren’t obligated to redirect from two people to yourself.

  2. You aren’t permitted to redirect from yourself to two people.

This suggests that in the vicinity of the Principle of Double Effect there is an asymmetry between doing and allowing. For you are permitted to allow two people to be hit by the trolley rather than sacrifice your life, but you are not permitted to redirect the trolley from yourself to the two.

Now, you might object that the whole thing here is founded on the idea, which I am not sure of, that you are not obligated to save two strangers at the expense of your life. While I am pretty confident that you are not obligated to save one stranger at the expense of your life, with two I become unsure. If this is the sticking point, I can modify my case. Instead of having two people fully on Path A, we could suppose that there is one person fully on Path A and the other has a limb on the track. I don’t think you are obligated to sacrifice your life to save one stranger’s life and another’s limb. But it still seems wrong to redirect the trolley from yourself at the expense of a stranger and a limb. So we still have an allowing-doing asymmetry.

Another interesting question: Are you permitted to redirect a trolley heading for you in a way that kills one stranger? I am not sure.

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