The trolley problem is a perfect critique of consequentialism. Consequentialism is the philosophical view that an action is morally right when it produces the best overall consequences. There are two basic principles to consequentialism:
- An act is right or wrong based solely on its results.
- The more good consequences created from an act, the better and more right that act is.
While consequentialism can provide guidance for how one should live his life (we should live to maximize the amount of good consequences) and how to react during a moral dilemma (we should choose the action that will maximize the good consequences), consequentialism has been met with its fair share of criticism.
In consequentialism, it proves challenging to predict future consequences. How does one go about assessing the morality of a consequence? Should it be based on what an individual believed would happen, or should it be based on what actually happened? There are also issues with how to measure and compare consequences that are morally “good.” According to hedonism, a form of consequentialism, good is measured by pleasure, while in utilitarianism, another type of consequentialism, good is measured by well-being and welfare.
In the case of the trolley problem, we begin to see how consequentialism unravels. In the first case, one form of utilitarianism claims pulling the lever is, morally speaking, the better choice. However, another type of utilitarianism claims that since something morally wrong is already happening, participating by pulling the lever would also be morally wrong because you are now partially responsible for the death of a person or persons, whereas before, you were not.
In the case of the second scenario, many people who were willing to pull the lever were not willing to throw the fat man over the bridge. While the consequences in both situations remain the same (you choose to save the five people and one person dies), there seems to exist a moral difference between simply pulling the lever and actually throwing a person over a bridge.