Monday, 13 December 2010

Morality vs Ethics: the problem with trolleys

"Aha" says the Moral Philosopher triumphantly, polishing his monocle ferociously with a large handkerchief. "You have contradicted yourself! If you say yes to the first case you should say yes to the second, for you have already revealed your acceptance of the principle that one person should be sacrificed for the many."
Many people - even many philosophers - think that morality and ethics are the same thing. But they are not. Morality is primarily about making correct choices, while ethics is about proper reasoning.

Should you kill the fat man? 

Take the so called 'trolley problem', a thought experiment about runaway trains invented by the late Philippa Foot and very popular with moral philosophers of a certain whimsical bent. You see that a runway train is hurtling down a track, and that it is going to hit a group of 5 people standing in its path and will certainly kill them all. However, you happen to be standing next to a switch that can divert the train down another track where only a single person is standing. What would you do?

Most people say they would pull the switch and kill 1 rather than 5. (Visit to read the full outline, try out your own intuitions against various iterations of the situation, and find out what other people decided.)

But if the terms of the situation are slightly changed, people tend to give quite a different answer. Suppose that there is no switch, but that you are instead standing on a bridge over the railway track next to a very fat man, and you are sure that if you pushed him onto the track his bulk (but not yours) would be sufficient to stop the train before it hit the group of people. What do you think now? Should you kill the fat man?

Most people who said ‘yes' to diverting the train say ‘no' to pushing the fat man. But if you do, many moral philosophers would say you have made a mistake. Not because you are wrong about whether or not to kill people to save others, but because you are being inconsistent about your killing decisions.

I find this complaint rather strange, and I think it reveals much about the legalistic character of contemporary moral philosophy. What this approach to moral philosophy is concerned with is the correct derivation and application of moral rules. (The linguistic derivation of "morality" from the Latin, mos - norms or rules - is somewhat suggestive here, although the distinction I want to make does not depend on it.)

Moral philosophy therefore has two concerns:

i) the content - 'what are the moral laws?' (whether the utilitarian commandment to maximise valuable consequences, or Kant's categorical respect for dignity); and

ii) the application of those rules - 'which moral law does this case fall under?'

It is supposed that the hard part of morality is coming up with the right rules, while their application will be more or less formulaic and can be objectively evaluated in terms of the formal virtues of consistency, transitivity, and menu independence (just such as can be found in economics textbooks under Rational Choice Theory). Hence, the moral philosopher in the trolley case does not criticise your choice of principle - the formula: sacrifice one for five - but does feel more than qualified to criticise your inconsistent application of it. You are free to be a utilitarian or a Kantian, but then you have to stick to that commitment.

Is this a realistic model of morality? Does it characterise how you think about moral problems, or think you should? Fortunately there is an alternative: Ethics.

Ethics comes from the Greek tradition that emphasises ethos (character), though it remained important right up until the enlightenment and is still popular today in our ordinary moral talk and thinking. It asks 'What kind of person is good?' This is personalised as 'What kind of person should I be?' It is particularised as 'How should a good person behave in this case?' Ethics emphasises the responsibility and capability of the individual (hence character) to come to her own conclusions through reasoning, to be the judge of which features of a particular case are morally relevant and how they should be considered in combination.

The ethicist does not think in terms of moral laws. Indeed the ethicist finds the view that moral laws determine what to do deeply naive, in the way that believing that all supreme court justices do is read the constitution and do what it says is naive. The moral laws approach to the practise of morality does not take what ethical agents do seriously. Indeed it attempts to exclude them from the situation altogether, replacing their judgement with an easily automated algorithm.

The important thing about judges is that while they themselves - not some universal formula - are responsible for making their decisions, their reasoning has a public aspect. No judge, whether of the quality of an artwork, a gymnastics competition, or a murder trial, is allowed to simply announce their conclusion and leave it at that, as if it were only a personal opinion. Unlike opinions, which one may have about one's favourite ice cream flavour or the morality of capital punishment in general, judgements must be justified by the characteristics of the case in hand and expressed in a way that seeks inter-subjective agreement from others with an interest in the matter. Judges must be able to show by explaining their reasoning that anyone else in their position should come to their conclusion, e.g. that this and this are the salient features of this case and should be understood and weighted in this way. They must be prepared to persuade others, and to modify their reasoning and conclusions in the light of relevant contrary evidence and arguments.

So, turning back to the trolley problem, the problem I see with the straightforward moral philosophy approach is that it fails to distinguish between reasoning and choices, and thus interprets any inconsistency of choice as evidence of inconsistency of reasoning. But from the ethical perspective people are seen not as attempting to apply the core set of moral principles they have already committed themselves to, but as reasoning more broadly about which features of the situation are relevant and how much they should count in these different cases in order to come to judgements about what one should do. There is no point in trying to identify the formula the participant is using to decide what to do, because there isn't one. And thus the moral philosopher's charge of contradiction - the inconsistent application of a formula - is misguided (a case of petitio principii - arguing for a conclusion already assumed in the premise).

All this is not to say that these thought experiments aren't interesting and useful, but we should be more concerned with evaluating - and challenging - the reasoning behind the participant's conclusion, where the real ethical action is, rather than studying matrices of choices to detect patterns and 'mistakes'. The latter approach does not take ethical agents seriously, and it seems to me that moral philosophy without ethical agents is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.

3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize 2011

Revised December 2014


  1. Thanks for explaining both the difference between morality and ethics, and why the trolley problem is so prominent, neither of which I'd been able to grasp at all before. Still, it occurs to me that we pick up moral codes from those around us, and could hardly think ethically if we hadn't, and that then we can help others by codifying the results of our ethical thinking, adding that the moral codes are fallible and have exceptions. So even with the moral/ethical distinction, problems like the trolley problem seem important, as you say.

    They seem able to introduce young adults to ethics. But also, I wonder if the usual answers aren't inconsistent, that we shouldn't pull the lever if we aren't prepared to push. What, after all, is the difference? And are most people not just applying moral codes badly, when they say it's wrong to push the fat man to his death (but right for him to jump), but alright to kill the man by pulling a lever? I think people are thinking of analogous situations in which clearer moral codes apply. E.g. it would be OK for the driver to divert the train away from the five, e.g. because it's more likely that one could escape in time than that five could. And pulling a lever is like driving a train. And if I'm right about that, then the inconsistency is revealing a flaw in most people's ethical reasoning, so it's not moral vs ethical, but an interplay.

  2. Thanks, enigMan. I am not against having principles - morals - but I am against casuistic approaches based on some determinate theoretical rule like consistency. The 'ethical perspective' (as I have called it to distinguish it from this) is based on reasoning about our principles in a way that acknowledges the foundational role of indeterminacy: that ethics is not about getting the 'right' answer, but your best effort at a good one.

    Where do our principles come from? From our previous experiences of exercising judgement, including that based on 'distance learning' about other cases from other people, as you say, or the news. Often we simply routinely apply our previously generated principles to new situations that don't seem to require very deep reflection. But sometimes we find those conclusions inapt - sometimes we have to be shown this - and we must undertake a fuller reflective deliberation in which our principles have the character of reasons in the production of new judgements, rather than merely alternative conclusions to choose between.

    I only chose a common and very superficial interpretation of the Trolley Problem that I found particularly prominent in the experimental literature as a nice example to make my argument against casuistry. Much of the TP literature is far richer and more sophisticated than this and does focus far more on how people may be reasoning, or as you suggest, failing to reason properly.

  3. I see; I'm in broad agreement with you then. (I've noticed that in logic consistency is prized in some wrong kind of way, and a connexion with indeterminacy being seen as a problem rather than a basic fact.)

    However, I don't think the moral philosopher's charge of contradiction in the trolley case is misguided. It is the two judgements that are being inconsistent, irrespective of how they were come by, insofar as the situations are analogous. And to some extent they are. The problem is therefore to find some apposite difference. (Similarly in logic, the noticing of a contradiction usually triggers a clarification procedure.)

    Furthermore, while we as philosophers think like ethicists, surely it's good that most people (including ourselves) are expected to work within a given moral framework. That means that we all benefit, not only from a coherent framework that we can all know, but also from intelligent revisions made by experts at the top. Most people should not push a fat man off a bridge whatever they think will happen (and especially not in order to derail a train), nor should they interfere with railway switches (whatever they think is happening).

    But if you know how the switches work, then you may well be competent to switch the train to where one rather than five are. You have to judge that interfering is the right thing to do. But the description of the trolley problem gives you the relevant information. The problem with the trolley problem, as I see it, is that its descriptions make the two cases very similar. And yet in general, pushing a fat man to his death in order to derail a train with his body is not going to be a reasonable option. The information you are given shows that it is just as reasonable. It's just like pulling a lever. But the general case is very different. And in no possible world would you find yourself in such a case with such information as you are given (e.g. that no one on the train will die as it derails).

  4. We have to get behind the inconsistency of judgements in order for the inconsistency charge to bite. We have to analyse the reasoning that is going on and show how it is problematic in its weighting and combining of reasons. If a judge sends one murderer to jail for 10 years, and another to the death chamber, that is not evidence of problematic inconsistency. If it turns out that the cases were in fact very similar, but one judgement seemed influenced by the race of the murderer, then we can start to criticise.

    "While we as philosophers think like ethicists, surely it's good that most people (including ourselves) are expected to work within a given moral framework."

    Do you have some elitist view in mind? I reject that entirely. People are already ethical beings. Philosophers are simply in the business of creating theoretical - moral - systems to grasp that fact. I do not accept that philosophers know any better what the right answers to moral questions are (all the ethicists I know are quite profoundly ordinary in their everyday moral capacities and intuitions). I would hope that they could help us think moral problems through in a clearer and more systematic way. But the burden of proof is always on the theoretician to demonstrate the relevance of what he is saying and also to acknowledge the possible distorting effects of his theory on real, ethical life.

    It's a bit like the case of neoclassical economics which also takes a formulaic approach to human behaviour. We all take part in the economy, but economists have created a theoretical system based on "economic agents" (homo economicus) characterised by the requirements of rational choice theory: whatever your preferences are, they must be characterised by transitivity and completeness, and your only goal is their maximisation. Of course, actual people do not behave in this way. Nor should they.

  5. No, I didn't have an elitist view in mind; I think the confusion arose because by "philosopher" I didn't mean an academic theoretician, but something more like an amateur scientist. (What is and what should be philosophy?) We are all born into a culture, and then we can choose to think about it (the culture gives us some ways of doing so, and we can choose to augment or ignore them). I think that basically, arguments can be used to win stuff or to pursue the truth, and in the latter case we are being philosophical. Other than that, I think you're right.

    Some people pursue academic careers only to earn stuff, I suppose; and while our personal thinking spirals (unpredictably and hermeneutically), academia rewards early success (and our culture popularity). So I think that we do have a problem with modern academic theories (as we used to have a problem with entrenched tradition). I sometimes wonder if that problem wouldn't be lessened by our being more elitist (in some meritocratic way), but that's not what I was saying.

    Anyway, I wonder if you think that the Trolley Problem shows Kant to be right? The two scenarios can be made more and more similar, until the only difference is that in one the death is inevitable but in some way incidental, while in the other it is more instrumental. The former seems alright, the latter wrong; but those are intuitions, not reasons. Without such a difference, the killing decisions would seem to be inconsistent.

  6. It occurs to me now that there's some basic division between what we would do and what we would want someone in authority to do. In a democracy, we need to think about the latter as though it was our choice, even when we personally can only act in the former way. So for example in the Trolley problem, I would be Kantian in both scenarios when it comes to my personal actions (and so have to explain why I would not pull the lever) but if I had the authority I would aim for the lowest number of deaths in both scenarios (although I still think that pushing the fat man to derail a train is too unrealistic to be anything but a rhetorical device designed to reveal some sort of hidden distinction). So I now wonder if that distinction is related to the distinction between ethics and morality?

  7. So perhaps the politics includes the authority to make difficult moral decisions on our behalf. Is that so we don't have to, because deciding between different terrible options is hard going? But then how do politicians decide whether to spend limited budgets on reducing road deaths or curing cancer? I think they also outsource their decision-making to bureaucratic procedures as much as they can.

  8. I was called for an interview today and was asked what i think the difference between morality and ethic is, and i was shocked. I stumbled a little and eventually concluded that there is no difference. The interviewer looked (scornfully) at me thereafter.

    This question continues to perturb me and make me very uncomfortable long after the interview; i tried to reason out with myself what exactly is the difference and came to a slightly different conclusion from yours.

    Morality is a narrower concept that involves deeply personal beliefs and reasoning.
    Ethics, on the other hand, represents a 'code of conduct' or a 'rule' that the society or association impose. This 'association' that i have mentioned refers to a group or community that i have joined.

    For instance:
    I join the medical community to be a doctor so i have to obey or pledge myself to the medical ethics.
    I join the business community to be an entrepreneur so i should obey the business ethics like: honesty is the best policy.
    You get the idea..

    So for me ethics is about a collective rule imposed by a community. Arguably, as humans we can say that we belong to the 'human' community and should obey the 'human' ethics...

    You say:
    (Ethics) asks 'What kind of person is good?' This is personalised as 'What kind of person should I be?' It is particularised as 'How should a good person behave in this case?' Ethics emphasises the responsibility and capability of the individual (hence character) to come to her own conclusions through reasoning, to be the judge of which principles are relevant in a particular case and how they should be considered in combination.

    Your passage appears to boldly claim that ethics involves reasoning and arguing whereas morality involves simplistic assertion of ones personal beliefs that hasn't gone through the thought process.

    I would disagree. Instead, if anything, i would claim that ethics is a 'worse off' concept as it imposes majority rule; ethics constricts autonomy and the free will of individuals.
    Also morality is not mere assertion like what u said. It is about reasoning and debating with ourselves. In Michael Sandel, Harvard professor for Philosophy, words:
    "We sometimes think of moral reasoning as a way of persuading other people. But it is also a way of sorting out our own moral conviction, of figuring out what we believe and why"
    Therefore morality is about reasoning with ourselves. Should we agree to euthanasia? Why should we agree with euthanasia? Or why should we not? Is it because euthanasia helps to end suffering and maximise personal utility (utilitarian moral reasoning)? Or is it because there is something intrinsic/some dignity about the human life and so we should not use our own lives as means to some end -- to stop pain/ mitigate pain (Kantian moral reasoning)?
    Such morality is certainly not mere simplistic assertion of personal beliefs that has no element of reasoning, is it?

    To end off, i would like to pose an over-used scenario:
    Suppose that in a hospital lie 6 dying people. 5 of them are dying as they each lack a certain organ (each of them lacks a different organ). The 6th person is dying due to a car accident.
    Assumption: You know for sure that the 5 people will die before the 1 person dies, and so u cannot 'wait' for the 1 person to die first. You also know for sure that extracting the organs from the 5 and implanting them into the 1 will definitely save the 5 and kill the 1.

  9. Your medical ethics says that it is wrong to kill or deny a person of his life.
    Your personal belief (morality) is slanted towards utilitarianism and you believe (personally) in maximising utility.

    Your decision: You eventually killed the 1 to save the 5.
    Jugement: Are you (or 'I am" if the direct questioning is uncomfortable) wrong? Or are you right?
    Ethically speaking, according to the common code of conduct or collective rule by the medical community, I am wrong because i have denied a person of his life.
    But morally, according to my own moral reasoning, i am right because i stayed true to my own beliefs and i can reason, and NOT simply assert, my decision.
    So am i wrong or am i right in the killing?
    I personally believe that there is no answer to the question in part because this is a philosophy-question and there is no answer to such questions, and also in part because in reality most doctors will not kill-- not because the social code (ethics) reigns supreme, but because in being a utilitarian, the doctor would also take into account his OWN negative utility: the suspension of license, possibility of incarceration, personal future 'guilt' etc etc. And if i may, i would say that the doctor would weigh his OWN negative utility quite or even much more strongly.

    But i would say that the doctor is entitled to being punished because he has flouted the rule/code of conduct (ethics).

  10. I appreciate, O Bearded One, the way in which you have distinguished morality and ethics. I may even refer to and employ your version of the distinction, turning it to my own purposes.

    But I have also been in the position described by Undescore above, asked to distinguish the two. My response here is partly a note in simpathy and solidarity with Underscore.

    I think the terms are ambiguous, and there are several different and equally acceptable ways to cut the distinction. When people speak of "professional ethics," for example, they often intend to refer to positional responsibilities that are supposed to accrue to particular professional roles. But this isn't the way our Bearded Host has employed the distinction above.

    Underscore, in the predicament you describe, I gave the same response you gave: I said that I typically use 'ethics' and 'morality' interchangeably and that I planned to do so in the remarks I was about to deliver.

    This inspired the same scornful look you report having received yourself, as well as a vehement retort excoriating me for my ignorance of such a simple and common conceptual distinction.

    So I followed up noting that there are contexts and philosophers who use these terms differently. Where terms are ambiguous in this way it's useless to assume that there is One Right Way to cut the distinction. The way forward is to stipulate in advance which convention one will adopt, not to suppose that there is only one way to slice the conceptual pie. Our Bearded Friend has done precisely this in his remarks above, so perhaps he will regard this as a friendly and supportive suggestion.

    But my interlocutor was a Fundamentalist. He knew the One True Way to slice, and was still prepared to heap Scorn upon the unwashed (me). Underscore, perhaps we have encountered the same person?

    Yours in solidarity,


    1. Seneca,

      I quite agree. I think my distinction is a good one, in that to does useful philosophical work, but I freely admit that the labels I have used have been used differently in the past and my claim to them may be contested.

      However, I didn't begin with looking at the words "morality" and "ethics" and trying to figure out what they really meant. Rather I started by finding a need for a distinction in moral philosophy and then trying to articulate it. The labels are the least important part of that process.

  11. People find pulling a switch from a distance as the lesser of two's more impersonal than actually being the one who must PUSH an innocent man to his death. Albeit to save and kill the same numbers no matter which method is chosen.

    The fact that we must touch the fat man, perhaps see his terror at our act is unbearable. Where in the first case, pulling a switch...we can imagine it's the train that is killing the people. We just minimized the damage.

    Very interesting article! Thank-you. A.

  12. I think that your distinction relies on the wrong root. Websters New World College 4th edition says that the Greek ethos means both character and custom. Morality comes from mos, moris, a word that refers to manners and customs. This includes character because manners and customs mark (the root of character is charassein, to engrave) the good person. An emphasis on character thus does not divide morality and ethics. Cicero, for instance, used moris to translate ethikos without any confusion on the importance of character. However, the meaningful difference is that ethike combines ethos with techne. techne is skill, method or craft, which all have to do with process. This would seem to be the difference between ethics and morality that you focus on.

  13. Moral is according to the prevailing legal system.
    Ethic is according to intellectual self-consciousness.

  14. I see no distinction between ethics and morals. They are synonyms. The one is of Latin origin and the other Greek.

    moral (adj.) mid-14c., "pertaining to character or temperament" (good or bad), from O.Fr. moral (14c.) and directly from L. moralis "proper behavior of a person in society," lit. "pertaining to manners," coined by Cicero ("De Fato," II.i) to translate Gk. ethikos (see ethics) from L. mos (gen. moris) "one's disposition," in plural, "mores, customs, manners, morals," of uncertain origin. Perhaps sharing a PIE root with English mood (1).

    1. Yes, those terms are generally used as synonyms nowadays. Yet there is more than one approach squeezed in it. One legatlistic and abstract and favoured by the academic moral philosophers. The other more familiar to everyday thinking and every day life, as Greek virtue ethics was.

      My post attempts to show how these approaches differ. Whether or not my distinction fits particularly well with the linguistic history of the words ethics and morality is merely suggestive.

  15. I don't know for certain that pushing the fat man will stop the train.

    One possible outcome of pushing the fat man is that the five people still die but that I would also have committed murder.

  16. I've been reading so many different definitions and distinctions of morals and ethics online, my head hurts. It seems that everyone has a different explanation. The best that I understand yours, philosopher's beard, is that before one can do the right thing, one has to figure what the right thing is. So the difference between morality and ethics is making a choice and arriving at that choice. Am I anywhere in the ballpark?

    1. Sort of.

      My post tries to get at the difference between how (many) academic moral philosophers analyse morality and how 'ordinary' people experience it. It seems to me that the academics exclude much of what actual moral life consists in. For example, academics think of rules as axioms from which they can construct moral theories. But ordinary people generally use rules as heuristics, that identify issues of moral significance but don't in themselves determine the right answer to the problem.

    2. While we may think the push and lever are the same, they are not in one very important way.

      The push is a final act, that can only result in death. There is no hope as of the moment of the push.

      No matter how dire the situation with the lever pull, there is the slightest hope the single individual could move from the track after you activate the lever.

      There is certainty in only one of the two actions.

  17. In my opinion morals/ethics are essentially synonymous. Morality/ethics are systems or methods for determining what one ought to do, i.e. for deciding what is the right thing to do.

    You say that "Morality is primarily about making the correct choices, while ethics is about proper reasoning.". Why do you believe that reasoning properly and choosing correctly are separate?


    1. On synonymity, I don't know what I can say to you that I haven't already said, in the comments as well as the main post.

      But let me clarify one point. I have argued that the morality perspective is overly concerned with "choices" and their formal properties (consistency, etc). But that is not the same as a concern with "choosing". It is only in the latter that you take ethical agents seriously as involved in some reasoning process about what is the right thing to do (and get into the issue of better or worse ethical reasoning). And it seems to me that moral philosophy without ethical agents is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.

  18. Pushing the boat out, I'd like to distinguish between morality and ethics like this: morality - externally provided societal or religious rules, dependent on history and culture. This fits with 'moral' choices that can be very negative for other people.

    Ethics - a branch of science, developing in various fields over time true regardless of culture or country. In the same way that there are not different, culture specific forms of Mathematics or geology, were ethical reasoning does produce inconsistencies, there would need to be study and resolution.

    Perhaps this is groundless but discussions about morality are so tied to religion, it would be good if we could set out the difference between what we'd like to be true against what is true.

  19. Based on what I conclude is the most common use of the terms, morality seems to reflect a higher, overarching, even subsuming position relative to ethics. Someone opposed to the death penalty, or gay marriage, or use of chemical weapons almost always will assert that it is immoral rather than simply unethical.

    If a doctor or lawyer has sex outside of marriage, some may view it as immoral. If, however, the sex is with a patient or client, it more likely will be characterized as unethical.

    I am referring to the common conception and not to the perceptions of philosophical reasoning and intellectual discourse. On that basis, both moral and ethical are viewed as standards or codes of right conduct and behavior; moral associated with more general standards, of a more universal nature, often reflecting a supernatural origin whereas ethical more usually refers to a more specific class, or group, or profession, and principally of secular origin.

  20. Appreciate.Morality with a judicious mix of ethics is important to solve the problems.When a situation of life and death comes before us then we don't find sufficient time to decide over which action should be taken but when we codify our duties in regard to these situations then we become a part of the institution over which we don't have any control,why institution is always ready to provide a rail link where citizens don't feel safe,here comes the question of capitalist versus socialist,riches versus poverty and exploiter versus exploited.

  21. There is another approach:

    "In principle, morality and ethics are the same, just the people they are concerned about are in different places. [...] When the object of moral effort is close to the subject, actions for his sake have a specific, subjective meaning. When the other man moves away somewhere over the horizon, turning into an abstraction, into a real object, then the actions become likewise abstract - common, universal and objective. Ethics is impersonal morality." ("Cult of Freedom")

    I belive this approach explains the seeming inconsistency of moral judgments in the trolley case.

    1. There may be something to that. But responses to other framings of the trolley problem suggest there is more to it. For example, when people consider turning a switch that controls a trap-door that would drop the Fat Man onto the tracks to stop the runaway train, many are apparently still unwilling to do it even though this is a more abstract way of killing him than shoving him off the bridge with your own hands would be.

      For more about that sort of thing, see e.g. David Edmonds' interview on

    2. Sorry, I do not see anything more. It is still the same conflict "morality vs ethics". "More abstract" does not mean "comletely abstract", there is still subjective feelings involved - the man is FAT, the man WILL FALL, subject SEE his death, etc. This whole "puzzle" is a simple game of imagination around the question of "how abstract can people/ethics be?" (BTW, the neuro­-evidences mentioned in the discussion you linked prove me right.)

      Morality and ethics are like the opposite ends of a "social line" between two subjects. If interested, you can see more at

  22. The real conflict is where one believes an action to be wrong, but commits that action in what one percieves to be the lesser of two evils?

  23. The problem with the "fat man" is that he is fat. In a culture in which fat-shaming has been deemed highly inappropriate and morally reprehensible, people will refrain from something they imagine may reap them additional scorn. Make that person a person of another ethnicity or skin colour and you'd get similar results.

    As to morality vs. ethics - to me morality is always and closely linked to a structured belief-system aka a religion. Which is why decisions according to morals often don't meet with universal acceptance or show a marked difference between an atheist's take and a believer's. Ethics on the other hand are a reasoned expression of fairness, or of not exploiting a position of power. They are independent of any religious system.

    To make it more practical: a person of Christian morals may condemn sex education because it aids people having any kind of sexual relationship without marriage and for procreation only (this is for instance the take of Catholic schools in the UK which don't have sex ed in their curriculae). An atheist would condem this stance for being unethical, because it causes provenly more teen pregnancies and teen STDs.

  24. Wouldn't the whole discussion be more interesting if both cases were considered simultaneously? That is by being told upfront that if you choose to switch, then by extension you would have to push the fat man.

  25. Very interesting piece Philosopher's Beard! Could you perhaps point me to some pieces written on the Trolley Problem from a morality (or law vs morality) point of view? I am doing research for a legal philosophy paper. Thanks again

    1. Look into the doctrine of double effect perhaps.

  26. Fantastic, but does it mean we better kill five souls at the expense of one? To some extent, I believe (or know?) there's need to let each situation get a decision for itself. For instance, in the Trolley problem, you'd rather take one life, than five.
    However, when you are to throw the life of a plump man who is unwilling to die into the carnage, it might not be fair considering the other five might actually be trying to commit suicide.

    In short, some cases are just too dilemmatic. But each situation has it's own special solution.

  27. I have a serious problem with thought experiments in that almost by definition they are overly simplistic. Take the trolley problem for example. Moral considerations alone would not allow us to take any action since one moral dictate or another would prevent us from intervening. Either way, as the experiment is set up, we are condemning someone to die so morality really offers no guidance. Taking into consideration the number of people who would die goes beyond simple moral strictures such as 'thou shall not kill' and into the real world where decisions have multiple and often unforeseeable consequences. For example, what happens to the train after it is diverted onto the track where it will cause only one fatality? Does the decision maker consider whether or not they will be sued by the decedent's family? Does the decision maker work for the railroad and knows how the switch works, what lies further down each of the tracks or whether or not the train might derail if it's going too fast?

    I prefer to make a distinction between morality and ethics, as do a growing number of people trained in healthcare professions. Morality involves black and white rules that must always be adhered to, while ethics recognizes that there are always many different and often competing considerations that need to be acknowledged in making a good decision. Moralists argue that if we take an ethical approach a person could rationalize their way out of anything and excuse even the most abhorrent acts. I would reply that this is exactly what happens anyway when we let moralists rule societies - witness the Spanish Inquisition and many of the acts of ISIS in areas they control. I would argue that morals, like most thought experiments, are two-dimensional and can only begin a discussion of what is right or good in any real world situation. We all must learn to live with ambiguity, welcome diversity and complexity, be honest enough to admit when mistakes are made and above all accept that actions have consequences often far-reaching consequences.