The Trolley Problem and the Principle of Double Affect

The Principle of Double Effect is a philosophical idea that is often used to analyze the Trolley Problem. It states that an action that has both good and bad consequences can be morally justifiable if the good consequences are intended and the bad consequences are only a side effect. In the Trolley Problem, diverting the trolley onto the other track would result in the death of one person, but this would be a side effect of saving five people, which would be the intended outcome.

The Trolley Problem is a moral thought experiment used to explore questions of ethical responsibility. The basic scenario involves a trolley that is careening down a track and will hit and kill five people who are tied to it. The dilemma is whether it is morally justifiable to divert the trolley onto a different track, where there is only one person tied up, in order to save the five people.

The Trolley Problem

These concepts raise important questions about ethical responsibility, moral reasoning, and the role of intention in moral decisions. They are widely discussed in philosophy, ethics, and psychology, and continue to be relevant to contemporary debates about ethics in various fields.

The Trolley Driver

The trolley problem is credited as being invented by English philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot who is also one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics, and who was inspired by the ethics of Aristotle. Along with Judith Jarvis Thomson, she is credited with inventing the trolley problem.

Foot’s version of the thought experiment, now known as “Trolley Driver”, ran as follows:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible, it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram, which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots, the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples, the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

The principle of double effect

The principle of double effect, also known as the rule of double effect or the doctrine of double effect, often abbreviated as DDE or PDE, double-effect reasoning; or simply double effect is a set of ethical criteria which Christian philosophers have advocated for evaluating the permissibility of acting when one’s otherwise legitimate act may also cause an effect one would otherwise be obliged to avoid. The first known example of double-effect reasoning is Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of homicidal self-defense, in his work Summa Theologica.

This set of criteria states that an action having foreseen harmful effects practically inseparable from the good effect is justifiable if the following are true:

  • The nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral.
  • The agent intends the good effect and does not intend the bad effect, either as a means to the good or as an end in itself.
  • The good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficiently grave to justify causing the bad effect and the agent exercises due diligence to minimize the harm.

From the Research Desk of TradersCommunity