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A trolley is out of control and there are five people on the track ahead, but on a siding, there is only a single person standing on the track. You have a switch which will divert the trolley and kill the single person instead of the five. Do you throw the switch? A similar problem is the only way to save the five is to push a fat guy off a bridge onto the tracks to stop the trolley. Do you push the fat guy off the bridge to sudden death?

The Trolley Problem – or – Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? by Thomas Cathcart. The “trolley problem” has stimulated discussions ever since it was presented by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. There are an infinity of deep questions that arise from these problems and this book presents many of them in a clear and easily understood style. Do we side with Jeremy Bentham and his ideas of “maximizing total human happiness,” or with Hippocrates and make our prime directive “do no evil”? Is throwing a switch and thereby killing a person with a trolley to save five people less evil than pushing a fat guy off a bridge and killing him to stop the runaway trolley from killing five others?

Those seem like important questions, but what does the average person’s morality guide them to do? What would you do? How would you justify your actions in a public court of law, and how would you justify your actions to the court of public opinion? In some jurisdictions, you might be convicted of voluntary murder and executed, and in others called a quick-acting hero and given some honors.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the author of Summa Theologiae, provides some guidance for these problems through the Principle of Double Effect:

  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect, he should do so.
  3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as directly as the bad effect. In other words, the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise, the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
  4. The good effect must be desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

The Trolley Problem is a fun book to read, and will provoke you to thought and to laughter.