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Would You Kill the Fat Man?
Would You Kill the Fat Man?
The Trolley Problem a nd
W hat Your A ns wer Tells Us
a bout R ight a nd Wrong
David Edmonds
Princeton University Press
Princeton and Oxford
Copyright © 2014 by David Edmonds
Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to
Permissions, Princeton University Press
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,
Princeton, New Jersey 08540
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 6 Oxford Street,
Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TW
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Edmonds, David, 1964–
Would you kill the fat man? : the trolley problem and what your answer tells us
about right and wrong / David Edmonds.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-691-15402-2 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Ethics. 2. Thought
experiments. 3. Churchill, Winston, 1874–1965—Miscellanea. I. Title.
BJ1012.E34 2013
150–dc23     2013012385
British Library Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data is available
This book has been composed in Electra and Syntax
Printed on acid-­free paper. ∞
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Liz, Isaac, and Saul
(an undiscriminating fan of wheels, trains, and trolleys)
“Clang, clang, clang” went the trolley
“Ding, ding, ding” went the bell
“Zing, zing, zing” went my heartstrings
From the moment I saw him I fell.
—­H ugh Martin and Ralph Blane,
“The Trolley Song,” 1944
(sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis)
List of Figures
Part 1
Philosophy and the Trolley
Chapter 1 Churchill’s Dilemma
Chapter 2 Spur of the Moment
Chapter 3 The Founding Mothers
Chapter 4 The Seventh Son of
Count Landulf
Chapter 5 Fat Man, Loop, and
Lazy Susan
Chapter 6 Ticking Clocks and
the Sage of Königsberg
Chapter 7 Paving the Road to Hell
Chapter 8 Morals by Numbers
Part 2
Experiment s and the Trolley
Chapter 9 Out of the Armchair
Chapter 10 It Just Feels Wrong
Chapter 11 Dudley’s Choice and
the Moral Instinct
Part 3
Mind and Brain and the Trolley
Chapter 12 The Irrational Animal
Chapter 13 Wrestling with Neurons
Chapter 14 Bionic Trolley
Part 4 The Trolley and It s Critics
Chapter 15 A Streetcar Named Backfire
Chapter 16 The Terminal
Ten Trolleys: A Rerun183
Figur e 1 Spur9
Figur e 2 Fat Man
Figur e 3 Lazy Susan
Figur e 4 Loop41
Figur e 5 Six Behind One
Figur e 6 Extra Push
Figur e 7 Two Loop
Figur e 8 Tractor Man
Figur e 9 The Tumble Case
Figur e 10 The Trap Door
The levity of the examples is not meant to offend.
—­P hilippa Foot
This book is going to leave i n its wake a litter of corpses and
a trail of blood. Only one animal will suffer within its pages,
but many humans will die. They will be mostly blameless victims caught up in bizarre circumstances. A heavyset man may
or may not topple from a footbridge.
Fortunately, almost all these fatalities are fictional. However, the thought experiments are designed to test our moral
intuitions, to help us develop moral principles and thus to be
of some practical use in a world in which real choices have to
be made, and real people get hurt. The point of any thought
experiment in ethics is to exclude irrelevant considerations
that might cloud our judgment in real cases. But the experiment has to have some structural similarities with real cases to
be of use. And so, in the forthcoming pages, you will also read
about a few episodes involving genuine matters of life and
death. Making cameo appearances, for example, will be Winston Churchill, the twenty-­
fourth president of the United
States, a German kidnapper, and a nineteenth-­century sailor
accused of cannibalism.
Thought experiments don’t exist until they have been
thought up. Books covering philosophy tend, rightly, to focus
on ideas, not people. But ideas do not emerge from a vacuum;
they are the product of time and place, of upbringing and per-
sonality. Perhaps they have been conceived as a rebuttal to
other ideas, or as a reflection of the concerns of the moment.
Perhaps they reflect a thinker’s particular preoccupation. In
any case, intellectual history is fascinating, and I wanted to
weave in the stories of one or two of those responsible for the
ideas on which this book is based.
There is a reason why the crime at the heart of this book, the
killing of the fat man, has never been fully solved, philosophically: it is complicated . . . really complicated. Questions that,
at first glance, appear straightforward—­such as “When you
pushed the fat man, did you intend to kill him?”—­turn out to
be multi-­dimensional. A book that attempted to address every
aspect of all the fraught issues raised by the killing would be
ten times the length of this one. In any case, although some of
the intricacies can’t be avoided—­indeed, they provide much of
the scholarly excitement—­my aim was to write a book that did
not require readers to hold a philosophy PhD.
When I first came across the trolley problem I was an undergraduate. When the fat man was introduced to philosophy I
was a postgraduate. That was a long time ago. Since then,
though, what has reignited my interest has been the perspective brought to bear on the problem from several other
My hope is that the text that follows will give some insight
into why philosophers and non-­philosophers alike have found
the fat man’s imaginary death so fascinating.
This is a dull bit for the reader, b
ut a welcome opportunity for the author—­the acknowledgment of debts. And I have
a trolley load of people to thank.
First, to numerous philosophers: I’ve conducted many interviews or had many meetings with academic philosophers about
the book, and have also drawn on relevant material gathered
through my work with the BBC, Prospect, and especially Philosophy Bites ( These philosophers
include Anthony Appiah, Fiery Cushman, Jonathan Haidt,
Rom Harré, Anthony Kenny, Joshua Knobe, Sabina Lovibond,
Mary Midgley, Adrian Moore, Mike Otsuka, Nick Phillipson,
Janet Radcliffe Richards, Philip Schofield, Walter SinnottArmstrong and Quentin Skinner.
Second, thanks to another set of philosophers who have
read part or all of the manuscript. No doubt there are still errors in the book, but that there aren’t more of them is down to
Steve Clarke, John Campbell, Josh Greene, Guy Kahane, Neil
Levy, John Mikhail, Regina Rini, Simon Rippon, Alex Voorhoeve, and David Wiggins (and Nick Shea, for helping me decipher Professor Wiggins’s handwriting).
Third, thanks to those who assisted with material for the biographical section—­Lesley Brown, M.R.D. Foot (who, sadly,
has passed away), Sir Anthony Kenny, and Daphne Stroud, a
former tutorial partner of Philippa Foot’s.
Fourth, I appreciate assistance I received from journalists at
the BBC and Prospect. Colleagues at the BBC were crucial
during this book’s germination stage. Jeremy Skeet helped to
commission a two-­part BBC World Service series on the subject, which was presented by the estimable Steve Evans, an
economist with an insatiable curiosity, who would have made
an excellent philosopher. For the past few years I’ve been contributing philosophy articles to Prospect, in which some of this
material was given a first airing. James Crabtree (now of the
Financial Times) and the former editor, David Goodhart, commissioned articles on subjects that other periodicals would shy
away from. If it’s possible to plagiarize one’s own work, then
I’m guilty in one or two places of doing so. The chapter on
experiments in philosophy relies on some of the research done
for an interview, co-­written with Nigel Warburton, on the X-­
Phi movement. And I’ve also written for Prospect on enhancement as well as on the trolley problem itself.
Fifth, to the team at Princeton University Press: Hannah
Paul and Al Bertrand were patient and encouraging throughout the writing process—­people always express similar sentiments about their editors in the acknowledgment section, but
this time it’s really true. Copyeditor Karen Verde, illustrator
Dimitri Karetnikov, and press officer Caroline Priday made up
an excellent team. Hannah Edmonds, as usual, played the role
of proofreading long-­stop, brilliantly catching grammatical and
spelling infelicities that had slipped through others.
Sixth, thanks to my agents at David Higham, particularly
Laura West and Veronique Baxter.
Seventh, my referees’ input was much appreciated. Princeton approached two academics to read the manuscript. I was
fortunate in that both of them are moral philosophers of international standing and both chose to waive their anonymity.
Roger Crisp, a professor at Oxford, made numerous useful suggestions, as did Jeff McMahan, of Rutgers and Princeton and
one of the world’s leading specialists in this area.
Eighth, gratitude to Julian Savulescu, Miriam Wood, Deborah Sheehan, Rachel Gaminiratne, and others at Oxford’s
Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, for providing me over the
past several years with such an hospitable academic base. Likewise, to Barry Smith and Shahrar Ali from the Institute of
Ninth, thanks to Britain’s finest Indian restaurant, the Curry
Paradise, for fueling the brain.
Finally, several friends merit a special mention. For the past
six years, Nigel Warburton has been my partner-­in-­crime on
the Philosophy Bites podcast. As of May 2012, our interviews
have had 18 million downloads: more important, the series has
been tremendous fun and has given me a wonderfully broad
philosophical education. I also want to acknowledge two non-­
philosophers. John Eidinow (with whom I’ve written three
books) and David Franklin, a law scholar, are very clever chaps
indeed. Both read the entire manuscript and made countless
invaluable comments.
The book is dedicated to Liz, for her loving kindness and
her gentle toleration; to Saul, who has trumped my trolley preoccupations with his toy-­train obsession; and to Isaac, the most
delightful of way stations, born some time between chapters 7
and 8.
Pa rt 1
Philosophy and the Trolley
C h apt e r 1
Churchill’s Dilemma
At 4:13 a.m. on June 13, 1944, there was an explosion in a lettuce
patch twenty-­five miles south-­east of London.
Britain had been at war for five years, but this marked the
beginning of a new torment for the inhabitants of the capital,
one that would last several months and cost thousands of lives.
The Germans called their flying bomb Vergeltungswaffe—retaliation weapon. The first V1 merely destroyed edible plants,
but there were nine other missiles of vengeance that night, and
they had more deadly effect.
Londoners prided themselves on—and had to some extent
mythologized—their fortitude during the Blitz. Yet, by the
summer of ’44, reservoirs of optimism and morale were running dry,—even though D-­day had occurred on June 6 and the
Nazis were already on the retreat on the Eastern front.
The V1s were a terrifying sight. The two tons of steel hurtled
through the sky, with a flaming orange-­red tail. But it was the
sound that most deeply imprinted itself on witnesses. The rockets would buzz like a deranged bee and then go eerily quiet.
Silence signaled that they had run out of fuel and were falling.
On contact with the ground they would cause a deafening explosion that could flatten several buildings. Londoners tempered their fear by giving the bombs a name of childlike inno-
Chapter 1
cence: doodlebugs. (The Germans called them “hell hounds”
or “fire dragons.”) Only an exceptional few citizens could be as
phlegmatic as the poet Edith Sitwell, who was in the middle of
a reading when a doodlebug was heard above. She “merely
lifted her eyes to the ceiling for a moment and, giving her voice
a little more volume to counter the racket in the sky, read on.”1
Because the missiles were not piloted, they could be dispatched across the Channel day or night, rain or shine. That
they were unmanned made them more, not less, menacing.
“No enemy was risking his life up there,” wrote Evelyn Waugh,
“it was as impersonal as a plague, as though the city was infested with enormous, venomous insects.”2
The doodlebugs were aimed at the heart of the capital,
which was both densely populated and contained the institutions of government and power. Some doodlebugs reached the
targeted zone. One smashed windows in Buckingham Palace
and damaged George VI’s tennis court. More seriously, on
June 18, 1944, a V1 landed on the Guards Chapel, near the
Palace, in the midst of a morning service attended by both civilians and soldiers: 121 people were killed.
The skylight of nearby Number 5, Seaforth Place, would
have been shaken by this explosion too. Number 5 was an attic
flat overrun by mice and volumes of poetry: there were so many
books that additional shelves had had to be installed in what
had originally been a bread oven, set into the wall. There was
a crack in the roof, through which could be heard the intermittent growl of planes, and there were cracks in the floor as well,
through which could be heard the near constant roar of the
underground. The flat was home to two young women, who
shared shoes (they had three pairs between them) and a lover.
Iris was working in the Treasury, and secretly feeding information back to the Communist Party; Philippa was researching
Churchill’s Dilemma
how American money could revitalize European economies
once the war was over. Both Iris Murdoch and Philippa Bonsanquet would go on to become outstanding philosophers,
though Iris would always be better known as a novelist.
Iris’s biographer, Peter Conradi, says the women became
used to walking to work in the morning to discover various
buildings had disappeared during the night. Back at the flat,
during intense bombing raids, they would climb into the bathtub under the stairs for comfort and protection.
They weren’t aware of it at the time, but matters could have
been worse. The Nazis faced two problems. First, despite the
near miss to Buckingham Palace, and the terrible toll at the
Guards Chapel, most of the V1 bombs actually fell a few miles
south of the center. Second, this was a fact of which the Nazis
were ignorant.
An ingenious plan presented itself in Whitehall. If the Germans could be deceived into believing that the doodlebugs
were hitting their mark—or, better still, missing their mark by
falling north—then they would not readjust the trajectory of
the bombs, and perhaps even alter it so that they fell still farther
south. That could save lives.
The details of this deception were intricately plotted by the
secret service and involved several double agents, including
two of the most colorful, ZigZag3 and Garbo.4 Both ZigZag
and Garbo were on the Nazi payroll but working for the Allies.
The Nazis requested eyewitness information about where the
bombs were exploding—and for a month they swallowed up
the regular and misleading information that ZigZag and Garbo
The military immediately recognized the benefits of this
ruse and supported the operation. But for the politicians it had
been a tougher call. There was an impassioned debate between
Chapter 1
the minister for Home Security, Herbert Morrison, and Prime
Minister Winston Churchill. It would be too crude to characterize it as a class conflict, but Morrison, who was the son of a
policeman from south London and who represented a desperately poor constituency in east London, perhaps felt more
keenly than did Churchill the burden that the operation would
impose on the working-­class areas south of the center. And he
was uneasy at the thought of “playing God,” of politicians determining who was to live and who to die. Churchill, as usual,
The success of the operation is contested by historians. The
British intelligence agency, MI5, destroyed the false reports
dispatched by Garbo and ZigZag, recognizing that, were they
ever to come to light, the residents of south London might not
take kindly to being used in this way. However, the Nazis never
improved their aim. And a scientific adviser with a stiff upper
lip, who promoted the operation even though his parents and
his old school were in south London (“I knew that neither my
parents nor the school would have had it otherwise”), estimated it may have saved as many as 10,000 lives.5
By the end of August 1944, the danger from V1s had receded. The British got better at shooting down the doodlebugs
from both air and ground. More important, the V1 launching
pads in Northern France were overrun by the advancing Allied
forces. On September 7, 1944, the British government announced that the war against the flying bomb was over.6 The
V1s had killed around six thousand people. Areas of south London—Croydon, Penge, Beckenham, Dulwich, Streatham, and
Lewisham—had been rocked and pounded: 57,000 houses
had been damaged in Croydon alone.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that without the double-­agent subterfuge, many more buildings would have been destroyed—
Churchill’s Dilemma
and many more lives lost. Churchill probably didn’t lose too
much sleep over the decision. He faced excruciating moral dilemmas on an almost daily basis. But this one is significant for
capturing the structure of a famous philosophical puzzle.
That puzzle is the subject of this book.
C h apt e r 2
Spur of the Moment
How are they free from sin who . . .
have taken a human life?
—Saint Augustine
A man is standing by the side of a track w
hen he sees a
runaway train hurtling toward him: clearly the brakes have
failed. Ahead are five people, tied to the track. If the man does
nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily he is next
to a signal switch: turning this switch will send the out-­of-­
control train down a side track, a spur, just ahead of him. Alas,
there’s a snag: on the spur he spots one person tied to the track:
changing direction will inevitably result in this person being
killed. What should he do?
From now on this dilemma will be referred to as Spur. Spur
is not identical to Winston Churchill’s conundrum, of course,
but there are similarities. The British government faced a
choice. It could do nothing or it could try to change the trajectory of the doodlebugs—through a campaign of misinformation—and so save lives. Different people and fewer people
would die as a result. Switching the direction of the train would
likewise save lives, though one different person would die as a
Spur of the Moment
Figure 1. Spur. You’re standing by the side of a track when you see a runaway train hurtling toward you: clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead are
five people, tied to the track. If you do nothing, the five will be run over
and killed. Luckily you are next to a signal switch: turning this switch will
send the out-­of-­control train down a side track, a spur, just ahead of you.
Alas, there’s a snag: on the spur you spot one person tied to the track:
changing direction will inevitably result in this person being killed. What
should you do?
Most people seem to believe that not only is it permissible to
turn the train down the spur, it is actually required—morally
A version of Spur appeared for the first time in the Oxford
Review, in 1967. The example was later reprinted in a book of
essays of which the dedication reads “To The Memory of Iris
Chapter 2
Murdoch.”1 It was the author of those essays who had shared a
flat with Iris Murdoch during World War II and cowered in the
bath at Seaforth Place as the British government was confronted with an analogous problem.2 Philippa Bonsanquet
(later Philippa Foot) could never have guessed that her puzzle,
published in a fourteen-­page article in an esoteric periodical,
would spawn a mini-­academic industry and signal the start of a
debate that continues to the present day.
It’s a debate that draws on the most important moral thinkers in the philosophical canon—from Aquinas to Kant, from
Hume to Bentham—and captures fundamental tensions in
our moral outlook. To test our moral intuitions, philosophers
have come up with ever more surreal scenarios involving runaway trains and often bizarre props: trap doors, giant revolving
plates, tractors, and drawbridges. The train is usually racing
toward five unfortunates and the reader is presented with various means to rescue them, although at the cost of another life.
The five who are threatened with death are, in most scenarios, innocent: they don’t deserve to be in their perilous circumstances. The one person who could be killed to save the
five is also, in most scenarios, entirely innocent. There’s generally no link between the one and the five: they’re not friends or
members of the same family: the only connection between
them is that they happen to be caught up in the same disastrous situation.
Soon we will meet the Fat Man. The central mystery about
how we should treat him has baffled philosophers for nearly
half a century. There have now been so many articles linked to
the topic that a jokey neologism for it has stuck: “trolley­ology.”3
As an indication of how trolleyology has entered popular
consciousness, a version of it was even put to a British prime
minister. In front of a live TED audience in July 2009, an inter10
Spur of the Moment
viewer threw Gordon Brown the following curveball. “You’re
on vacation on a nice beach. Word comes through that there’s
been a massive earthquake and that a tsunami is advancing on
the beach. At one end of the beach there is a house containing
a family of five Nigerians. And at the other end of the beach
there is a single Brit. You have time to alert just one house.
What do you do?” Amidst audience tittering, Mr. Brown, ever
the politician, deftly dodged the premise: “Modern communications. Alert both.”4
But sometimes you can’t alert both. Sometimes you can’t
save everyone. Politicians do have to make decisions that are a
matter of life and death. So do health officials. Health resources
are not limitless. Whenever a health body is faced with a choice
between funding a drug that is estimated to save X lives, and
funding another that would save Y, they are, in effect, confronted with a variation of the trolley problem, though these
are dilemmas that don’t involve killing anybody.5
As we’ll see, trolleyology has bred subtle and important distinctions: for example, between a choice to save one or to save
five on the one hand, and to kill one to save five on the other.
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in upper New
York State, where future officers come to train, all the cadets
are exposed to trolleyology as part of a compulsory course in
philosophy and “Just War” theory. It helps underline the difference, the tutors say, between how the United States wages war
and the tactics of al-­Qaeda: between targeting a military installation knowing that some civilians will inevitably be caught up
in the attack and deliberately aiming at civilians.
Philosophers dispute whether or not the trolley scenarios do
indeed encapsulate such a distinction. But trolleyology, which
was devised by armchair philosophers, is no longer exclusively
their preserve. A noticeable trend in philosophy in the past de11
Chapter 2
cade is how permeable it has become to the influence and insights from other fields. Nothing illustrates this better than trolleyology. In the past decade this sub-­branch of ethics has
embraced many disciplines—including psychology, law, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. And the most fashionable branch of philosophy, experimental philosophy, has also jumped on the tramwagon.
Trolley-­related studies have been carried out from Israel to
India to Iran.
Some of the trolleyology literature is so fiendishly complex
that, in the words of one exasperated philosopher, it “makes
the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes” (referring to a set of student
study guides).6 Indeed, to an outsider, the curious incidents of
the trains on the track may seem like harmless fun—crossword
puzzles for long-­stay occupants of the Ivory Tower. But at heart,
they’re about what’s right and wrong, and how we should behave. And what could be more important than that?
C h apt e r 3
The Founding Mothers
I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb.
—President Harry S. Truman, August 9, 1945,
the day Fat Man is dropped on Nagasaki
Philippa (Pip to her friends) Foot, the George Stephenson
of trolleyology, believed there was a right answer (and so, logically, also a wrong one) to her train dilemma.
Foot was born in 1920 and, like so many of her contemporaries, her ethical outlook was molded by the violence of World
War II. But when she began to teach philosophy at Oxford
University in 1947, “subjectivism” still had a lingering and, to
her mind, pernicious hold on academia.
Subjectivism maintains that there are no objective moral
truths. Before World War II it had been given intellectual ballast by a group of mathematicians, logicians, and philosophers
from the Austrian capital. They were known as the Vienna
Circle. The Vienna Circle developed “logical positivism,”
which claimed that for a proposition to have meaning it must
fulfill one of two criteria. Either it must be true in virtue of the
meaning of its terms (e.g., 2 + 2 = 4 or “All trains are vehicles”), or it must be in principle verifiable through experimentation (e.g., “the moon is made of cheese,” or “five men ahead
Chapter 3
are roped to the track”). All other statements were literally
These meaningless propositions would include bald moral
assertions, such as “The Nazis were wrong to gas Jews,” or “The
British were justified in using subterfuge to alter the trajectory
of the doodlebugs.” On the face of it this is an odd claim: these
propositions sound as if they make sense and at least the first
seems self-­evidently true. They’re not like the jumble of words,
“Trajectory doodlebugs subterfuge British alter justified,”
which is patently gibberish. How then ought we to interpret
ethical statements? One answer was supplied by the English
philosopher A. J. Ayer, who’d attended sessions of the Vienna
Circle.1 Later he would say of logical positivism that “the most
important of [its] defects was that nearly all of it was false,”2 but
for a time he was entirely under its spell. Ayer developed what
is pejoratively called the boo-­hooray theory.3 If I say, “The
Nazis were wrong to gas the Jews,” that’s best translated as,
“The Nazis gassed the Jews: boo, hiss.” Likewise, “The British
were justified in using subterfuge to alter the trajectory of
the doodlebugs” is roughly translatable as “The British used
subterfuge to alter the trajectory of the doodlebugs: hoorah,
At the onset of Philippa Foot’s career, the full horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps of World War II were still
being exposed and would haunt her. The notion that ethical
claims could be reduced to opinion and to personal preferences, to “I approve,” or “I disapprove,” to “hooray-­boo,” was to
her anathema.
But not only was Foot radically out of step with ethical emotivism, she also had little time for an alternative approach to
philosophy which for a period in the 1950s and 1960s dominated the discipline in Oxford and beyond—”ordinary lan14
The Founding Mothers
guage” philosophy. The ordinary language movement believed
that, before philosophical problems could be resolved, one had
to attend to the subtleties of how language is deployed in everyday speech. Philosophers would spend their time deconstruc­
ting fine distinctions between our uses of, for example, “by
mistake” and “by accident.”4 A student who spoke up in a lecture or tutorial would invariably hear the question boomerang
back: “what exactly do you mean when you say XYZ?” Pupils
of Foot recall her dutifully teaching this approach, but half-­
heartedly, and only so that they could pass exams.
Foot was not a natural teacher. She was solicitous, encouraging, but intimidating. She had a long, patrician face and a
plummy voice, sounding according to one student “like a
Grande Dame.”5 The first impression, that she came from an
aristocratic English family, would have captured a half-­truth.
Her parents were married in Westminster Abbey in one of the
social events of the year. Her father, Captain William Sydney
Bence Bosanquet, a World War I war hero, was from what Foot
herself described as the hunting, fishing, and shooting set. Foot
was brought up in an imposing country house and given almost no formal schooling, though she was surrounded by governesses. It was not a culture in which it was deemed advisable
or worthwhile to educate girls (Foot’s spelling was always atrocious). When to everyone’s surprise Pip was offered a place at
Oxford to read Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, a friend of
the family consoled the parents with the thought that “at least
she doesn’t look clever.”6
Foot never objected to intellectual snobbery, but university
liberated her from the social snootiness at home. She neither
flaunted nor hid her privileged background. Her studies began
a month after Britain had declared war on Germany: during
the war, while most of the female undergraduates stitched their
Chapter 3
own skirts out of blackout material, Philippa’s clothes were
fashionable and always “conspicuously not home-­made.”7 She
became the focus of particular attention from her economics
tutor, Tommy (later Lord) Balogh, a brainy, bullying, and philandering Jewish-­Hungarian émigré, who became an adviser to
Harold Wilson—an enthralling character though an “emotional fascist.”8 Balogh had many affairs: according to Foot’s
tutorial partner, Pip endured a sustained courtship campaign,
refusing his proposals—made in a thick accent—of marriage.9
But only half of Philippa Foot’s pedigree was posh-­English:
her mother could claim more illustrious lineage still. Esther
was born in 1893, in the White House. She was the daughter
of the twenty-­second president and the twenty-­fourth president
of the United States. This sounds like a logic teaser, since no
woman has ever held that office. But the descriptions, “22nd
President” and “24th President,” have, as philosophers might
put it, the same reference. The Democrat, Grover Cleveland,
Foot’s grandfather, was the only president ever to serve in two
nonconsecutive terms.
Foot was fascinated by her grandfather’s life (and knew her
grandmother reasonably well), but it wasn’t the “done” thing to
boast about such a connection. In public she was far more
likely to refer to a link with a relative on her father’s side: Bernard Bosanquet—the cricketer credited with inventing the
game’s most devious delivery, the googly.
Ménage à quatre
After the war, Philippa Foot persuaded her college, Somerville,
then an all-­women college, to take on a second philosopher,
Elizabeth Anscombe, who has an indirect but vital role in trol16
The Founding Mothers
leyology. Like Foot, Anscombe never took a PhD: in those days
a doctorate was a stigma, a sign that you weren’t considered
worthy of an immediate academic post. Anscombe had studied
Classics [Greats] and received a First Class degree despite, it is
said, answering “no” in her viva to the question, “is there any
fact about the period you are supposed to have studied which
you would like to tell us?”10 She cut her hair short, smoked cigars, drank tea from the saucer, and wore a monocle and trousers—one pair was leopard skin. She had a mellifluous voice,
like a clarinet, which she occasionally deployed to be eye-­
wateringly rude.
For many years Foot and Anscombe were confidantes as
well as colleagues, united in a visceral aversion to subjectivism.
Former students recall the two Somerville tutors retreating to
the common room after lunch, sitting on either side of the fireplace and engaging in protracted philosophical discussions.11
Foot always said she owed a great deal to Anscombe and
thought she was one of the best philosophers of her generation.
Respect was mutual: when a young Tony Kenny arrived in
town as a graduate, Anscombe told him that Foot was the only
Oxford moral philosopher worth heeding.
In the late 1940s it was still rare for women to enter academic philosophy, and Oxford was a bastion of male chauvinism. That one generation could produce not only Anscombe
and Foot, but Iris Murdoch too—who with Foot’s encouragement had applied for and been offered a job at nearby St.
Anne’s College—was remarkable. The gifted have a tendency
to cluster, so it was less than remarkable that their academic
and personal lives were so closely intertwined. There would be
falling-­outs and falling-­ins, demonstrations of loyalty and acts
of betrayal, philosophical consensus on some matters and bitter divisions on others. When Pip and Iris were flatmates in
Chapter 3
London, one of Murdoch’s numerous lovers was M.R.D. Foot.
M.R.D. Foot became a distinguished historian of the Special
Operations Executive, the clandestine organization that operated behind enemy lines in World War II. But in the war, he
himself was a daring agent, parachuting into alien territory. He
regarded parachuting as “a tremendous, sensual thrill—nothing but love-­making with the right companion can touch it.”12
The thrill was bound up with the danger. Foot was captured
and almost killed in 1944, by which stage Murdoch had
ditched him, rather callously, in exchange for Tommy Balogh.
Murdoch later grew to hate Balogh, calling him Satan and a
“horribly clever Jew.”13 But the episode had left M.R.D. Foot
feeling ravaged.14 Looking back, Murdoch wrote that Philippa
“most successfully salvaged what was left after my behavior”15
by marrying M.R.D. Foot herself, in 1945. The complications
from this partner-­swapping strained relations between the two
women for many years. “Losing you & losing you in that way
was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,”16 Murdoch wrote to Foot.
After the war, the Foots settled down to domestic life in
north Oxford. It seems to have been a relatively happy arrangement to begin with at least, though M.R.D. Foot was
devastated when he wasn’t awarded a First Class degree in
PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics). Pip broke the
news to him, and he spent the rest of his life adding to a list he
kept of distinguished people who had suffered a similar calamity. Then in the late fifties, quite unexpectedly to Philippa,
and with devastating emotional impact, her marriage broke
up. In his memoirs, M.R.D. Foot explains it in two lines. “I
remained passionately interested in having children; she
turned out not to be able to have any. Feeling a fearsome cad,
I walked out on her.”17
The Founding Mothers
At least it led to a thaw between Foot and Murdoch, so
much so that they connected almost every corner of the love
quadrangle and had a brief affair themselves. Meanwhile, the
relationship between Foot and Anscombe itself grew tense.
Foot was an atheist, Anscombe a devout Roman Catholic. This
chasm in their worldview would eventually become too vast to
be bridged by any shared philosophical interests.
And they did share interests as well as an approach to philosophy. In addition to their common assault on hooray-­boo
meta-­ethics, Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch were preoccupied
with the “virtues.” In answer to the question, “How should I
behave?” in any particular moral dilemma, one approach emphasizes moral obligations and duties: for example, the duty
never to lie. An alternative response, utilitarianism, states that
what matters are the consequences of an action, whether for
example the action saves the most lives, or produces the most
happiness. (Anscombe is credited with introducing the word
“consequentialism” into philosophy, for her a term of disdain.)
But Foot, Anscombe, and Murdoch were attracted by a third
way of thinking, which had been almost entirely abandoned, at
least in Oxford. Inspired by the work of Aristotle and Aquinas,
they stressed the importance of character.18 An action was good
insofar as it exhibited the behavior of a virtuous person. A truly
virtuous person will exhibit many virtues. The virtues include
pride, temperance, generosity, bravery, and kindness. Foot was
said to prize “honesty” as supreme among the virtues.19
Aristotle and Aquinas were not the only points of common
reference. A more recent and divisive character was also a powerfully felt presence. Born in Vienna in 1889, Ludwig Wittgenstein died in Cambridge in 1951. His genius, beguiling prose,
and mesmerizing charisma combined to make him the most
influential philosopher in the Anglo-­American world.
Chapter 3
Anscombe was the most deeply transformed by the Austrian.
During the war she had moved to Cambridge to take up a research fellowship. Wittgenstein spent the war working first as a
hospital porter and later a laboratory technician in Newcastle,
but he returned to Cambridge to lecture. Anscombe attended
these lectures and spent hours in conversation with him: he
referred to her, with affection, as “old man.” Far too idiosyncratic to be a disciple—Wittgenstein had no shortage of
these—Anscombe’s work was nonetheless indelibly stamped
by his style. When others expressed what they took to be a profound thought, she would ruthlessly expose their latent nonsense for patent nonsense. Arguing with Anscombe was likened
to having your skin ripped off.
Like so many of those who came into contact with Wittgenstein, she began to adopt some of his traits, such as disquieting
silences as she paused for thought in seminars and tutorials,
the vise-­like holding of her head with her hands, and the agonized expression during intense philosophical debate. She’s
even said to have developed a hint of an Austrian accent. Some
people detected an inauthenticity in her earnestness, but she
certainly took philosophy very seriously. Wittgenstein persuaded many of his most talented students to abandon the discipline: fortunately for philosophy, Elizabeth Anscombe stuck
to her vocation, though she told her friend, then plain Tony
Kenny, “I don’t have a thought in my head that wasn’t put
there by Wittgenstein”. “I sometimes think,” added Sir Anthony Kenny, “that I don’t have a single thought in my head
that wasn’t put there by Elizabeth.”20
Anscombe spread the Wittgensteinian gospel to Foot. During her lifetime Foot published several collections of articles,
but only one work conceived as a book, Natural Goodness. The
The Founding Mothers
opening page begins with Wittgenstein and one of only two
talks he delivered in Oxford. As Foot recalled:
Wittgenstein interrupted a speaker who had realized that
he was about to say something that, although it seemed
compelling, was clearly ridiculous, and was trying . . . to say
something sensible instead. “No,” said Wittgenstein. “Say
what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on.”
The suggestion that in doing philosophy one should not try
to banish or tidy up a ludicrously crude but troubling
thought, but rather give it its day, its week, its month, in
court, seems to me very helpful.21
Wittgenstein believed that philosophical puzzles were natural, easy to make, and yet arose out of conceptual confusion,
and so dissolvable by an analysis of language. The aim of philosophy was “to show the fly the way out of the flybottle.”22 And
Foot interpreted this as essentially an oral approach, involving
two people in therapeutic talk, one trying to express some deep
truth, the other pulling back the veil to expose its shallowness.
Perhaps, in those daily postprandial debates at Oxford, she
imagined herself acting out the role of trapped fly, with Anscombe helpfully pointing to the exit.
It’s not easy to conceive of any aspect of philosophy that
would be more alien to Wittgenstein than trolleyology. For one
thing, Wittgenstein was skeptical that philosophy had anything
to contribute to ethics. More important, the focus on the minutiae of a hypothetical puzzle, endlessly reexamined through
a myriad of subtly distinct scenarios, ran quite contrary to his
style—which grappled with the most fundamental questions in
logic and language. This gives us a clue as to what Foot herself
must have thought about the bourgeoning subdiscipline she
had inadvertently instigated.
Chapter 3
The President’s Degree
Our philosophers had something else in common. For them
moral philosophy was not merely an abstract exercise, to be
confined within the manicured quads and courts of mediaeval
universities. It mattered. They engaged with what was happening in the world, and believed they had a duty to do so. It wasn’t
a special duty that accrued to moral philosophers: it was a general duty that derived from being human.
Foot was one of a small group of people who set up a committee for famine relief back in the 1940s. She had initially
responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers to
sort out donations to a charity shop on Broad Street in the center of Oxford. The shop took whatever people could give, and
then resold it. In the early days there were gifts of false teeth
and a live donkey.23 Now the organization has grown somewhat. Oxfam operates in around one hundred countries and
has fifteen thousand shops.
Politics was conducted, of course, from within the framework of the Cold War, and Foot was active in supporting dissidents and émigrés from eastern Europe, especially from Hungary after the 1956 uprising. In 1975, she and Tony Kenny
were invited to lecture in Yugoslavia. They’d heard a rumor
that a local philosopher, Mihailo Marcović, had been arrested
before their arrival, and drew up a trenchant protest document
for distribution, hiding it in their luggage. As they smuggled
this contraband through customs, both Brits were anxious
about being caught. On this occasion their efforts proved unnecessary—Dr. Marcović was in the welcoming party to greet
Anscombe, too, was stirred into action by politics and current affairs. Two examples are relevant here. In 1956 there was
The Founding Mothers
a proposal to give Harry S. Truman, the thirty-­third president
of the United States (1945–1953), an honorary degree at Oxford University. Western Europe had much to be grateful to
Truman for. After succeeding Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, he
had overseen the final months of World War II. In the years
following the end of the war, the Berlin Airlift broke the Soviet
blockade on the Western part of this city, while the Marshall
Plan pumped vast sums of money into the region to rebuild its
shattered economies and NATO was established, providing
West European countries with a security umbrella.
The voting on any offer for an honorary doctorate would
normally have been a routine affair. However, for Truman, the
beautiful seventeenth-­century Sheldonian Theatre—where
such matters are aired in Oxford—was packed to its cupola.
Anscombe wrote that the academics had caught wind of her
rebellion and they were “whipped up to vote for the honour.”
The dons at St. John’s were simply told, “The women are up to
something in Convocation; we have to go and vote them
down.”24 A witness recalled events.25
Miss Anscombe rose and (after duly seeking the VC’s permission to speak English) delivered an impassioned speech
against the award of an Oxford degree to the “man who
pressed the button” of the Bomb.
At the time the Oxford Mail reported that Anscombe had
caused “a sensation.”26 National newspapers also covered her
intervention. Getting carried away with her own rhetoric, Anscombe had asked, “If you do give this honour, what Nero, what
Genghis Khan, what Hitler, or what Stalin will not be honoured in the future.”
The Americans named the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in
August 1945 Little Boy. The bomb detonated on Nagasaki
Chapter 3
three days later, on August 9, was Fat Man. Together they immediately took between 150,000 and 245,000 lives, and the
radiation claimed tens of thousands more in subsequent years.
Truman said he had ordered the dropping of the bombs—the
only time in history that nuclear weapons have been used—to
force Japanese surrender and accelerate the end of the war.
Within a week, Emperor Hirohito had announced his country’s capitulation.
But, as Anscombe stated, for men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends was always murder. She was
puzzled by the common cant about Truman’s decision being
“courageous.” “It may be said that Mr. Truman showed great
courage in making the decision,” she told the assembled academics, “but I should like to know what he had to lose. I should
like to think that he had one thing to lose, and that was the
chance of an honorary degree at Oxford.”
There are various inaccurate accounts printed about what
occurred in the vote. The Oxford University archives make it
clear that there was no formal count, but that the proposal to
honor Truman was approved by a calling out of placet [literally, it pleases] and non placet [it does not please]. In fact, at
least two other people backed Anscombe27—Philippa and her
then husband M.R.D. Foot. Philippa shared Anscombe’s horror of the bomb: her husband, by contrast, believed that dropping the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had shortened the
war, saved countless lives, and was fully justified: he only supported Anscombe out of a sense of personal loyalty.28 A pamphlet Anscombe later wrote about “Mr. Truman’s Degree” is
dedicated to those who said “Non placet.”
The full reason for Anscombe’s fury at Truman’s pressing
the atomic button revolves around the concept of “intention,”
discussed in the following chapters. Did Truman intend to kill
The Founding Mothers
innocent civilians? And her dissection of intention was key to
her views on other moral issues. Although Anscombe had, as it
were, bipedal support (two Foots) on her Truman stance, Foot
and Anscombe held diametrically opposed views on sexual
matters—in particular, contraception and abortion—which
would cause a permanent rupture between them: “[Anscombe]
was . . . more rigorously Catholic than the Pope,” said Foot.29
Right through the swinging sixties, the decade of feminist
awakening and sexual liberation, Anscombe was vehemently
defending the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition of contraception and advocating the rhythm method for sex between
married couples. She remonstrated with Foot when Oxfam introduced a policy on birth control in the developing world,
tearing up her Oxfam subscription. She bandied about the
term “murderer” quite liberally, applying it not just to President Truman but to almost any woman who chose to have an
The moral status of a fetus aroused fervid disagreement
among philosophers, and Foot and Anscombe both wrote philosophical essays on the matter. Of course, to some extent it remains a contentious issue, but in most of the developed world
the legal right to have an abortion is now settled. This was not
the case when Foot first applied her forensic philosophical
skills to the issue. The United States would have to wait until
the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973 to confirm a woman’s right to have an abortion. But in Britain the law liberalizing abortion was passed in parliament in October 1967. This
was the same year that Philippa Foot published her article—
”The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double
Effect”—in the Oxford Review, which introduced trolleyology
to the world.
C h apt e r 4
The Seventh Son of Count Landulf
[The Trolley Problem] a lovely, nasty difficulty.
—J. J. Thomson
The seventh son of Count Landulf was born near Naples
in the early part of the year 1225. The boy, Thomas, displayed
exceptional intellectual gifts. He also showed considerable
moral integrity. In his view, two of the highest virtues were fortitude and temperance, qualities he possessed in abundance.
To his family’s fury he determined to become a Dominican
friar rather than the Benedictine monk they had planned.
Benedictine monks have little interaction with the world. The
Dominicans believed not in living behind secluded cloisters,
but in traveling and preaching and spreading the word, surviving on charity. At one stage, in an attempt to thwart Thomas’s
plan, his elder brothers seized him while he was drinking at a
spring, and forcibly took him to a family castle. For two years
he was unable to leave. His siblings attempted to break his vow
of celibacy by dispatching to his quarters an attractive prostitute. When he saw her, Thomas jumped up, grabbed a poker
from the fire, and forced her to retreat from the room.1
He eventually escaped his captivity and traveled to Germany to pursue his studies under a gifted Dominican friar, who
The Seventh Son of Count Landulf
nurtured Thomas’s love and respect for Aristotle. Thomas later
taught in many places—in Paris, in Rome, in Naples. Everywhere he went, he of course wore the distinctive white tunic
and black cloak of the Dominican Order. Until his death in
1274, he wrote prodigiously: exegeses on Aristotle as well as
many original works of extraordinary range and depth.
Half a century later this scion of Landulf would be canonized. To become a saint, a person must perform miracles after
his death (to demonstrate that he is present in heaven and capable of coming to the aid of the living). But an indication of
God’s favorable opinion is to have performed miracles too during life. Thomas wasn’t a particularly industrious miracle
maker, preferring to write and read. But there were several witnesses to corroborate the following story: in Italy, in the last
days of his life, when he’d been refusing food, he suddenly announced that he had a craving for herring. That was unfortunate because herring was nowhere to be found around the Italian coast. But then the fishmonger arrived with his usual batch
of sardines and upon opening one of the baskets he found, to
everyone’s astonishment, that it was full of fresh herrings.
It’s a story that has been swallowed by devotees who, to this
day, pray at the saint’s grave in Toulouse for a cure to their ailments. But even non-­Catholics venerate Saint Thomas Aquinas. He is regarded by many Catholics as their faith’s preeminent theologian, while secular philosophers acknowledge his
seminal contributions in areas ranging from the philosophy of
mind to metaphysics and the theory of natural law. His work
in moral philosophy remains relevant to us today. In particular, he drew up the principles required for a war to be described as just. And he was the first thinker clearly to adumbrate a powerful doctrine. Intentional killing could never be
justified, thought Aquinas. But if a person was threatened, and
Chapter 4
the only option to save their life was to kill the assailant, well,
this killing could be morally permissible, provided the intention was self-­preservation, and not the taking of a life. Thus was
born the Doctrine of Double Effect—henceforth the DDE.2
Not One Effect, but Two
Philippa Foot was a careful intellectual mover. According to
Tony Kenny, “She was like a climber who would make sure her
footing was sound before taking the next step.”3 Foot was more
self-­deprecating. She once said, “I’m not clever at all. I’m a
dreadfully slow thinker, really. But I do have a good nose for
what is important. And even though the best philosophers
combine cleverness and depth, I’d prefer a good nose over cleverness any day!”4
In 1967, in a seminal article, her philosophical nose led her
to one of the most contentious areas in moral philosophy. The
full title of the article was “The Problem of Abortion and the
Doctrine of Double Effect.” In it, Foot rejects the use of the
DDE as a weapon to criticize abortion.
She explains the DDE, first identified by Thomas Aquinas,
as “based on a distinction between what a man foresees as a
result of his voluntary action and what, in the strict sense, he
intends.”5 Later she adds, “By ‘the doctrine of double effect’ I
mean the thesis that it is sometimes permissible to bring about
by oblique intention what one may not directly intend.” It is
called the doctrine of double effect because of the twin effects
of some actions: the one aimed at, the other foreseen but not
A literary example comes from Nicholas Monsarrat’s The
Cruel Sea.6 The book is set in World War II and the battle of
The Seventh Son of Count Landulf
the Atlantic. A British merchant convoy has been struck by
German torpedoes. Ships have been sunk and there are many
survivors in the sea, waiting to be rescued. The commander of
a British corvette is faced with the decision whether to drop a
depth charge, to destroy a German U-­boat knowing that the
massive explosion will kill the survivors. He knows too that if
he doesn’t take this action, the U-­boat will continue to wreak
havoc, sinking ship after ship. He drops the depth charge. In
making his decision to sink the U-­boat, the commander foresaw, but did not intend, the deaths of the survivors.
This distinction between intending and foreseeing is at the
core of the DDE. In Catholic theology, the DDE has been
pivotal to the church’s explanation of why, in its view, there are
only rare cases in which abortion is acceptable. Most cases of
abortion involve the intentional killing of the fetus. But if a
pregnant woman has a tumor in her uterus, and a hysterectomy is required to save her life, the fact that there is also a
fetus in the womb is, as it were, incidental. The aim of the
hysterectomy is not to kill the fetus (or indeed to have any effect on the fetus) but to deal with the tumor.
The DDE is not just fundamental to Catholicism: it’s cited
far beyond the pulpit. Some nonbelievers are minded to reject
any tenet originating in theology—a puerile stance since so
many philosophers have made their contributions from within
a religious framework. But the centrality of the DDE in commonsense morality should give theists and nontheists alike at
least pause. The DDE is built into law, into medical practice,
and into the rules of war. The law draws a distinction between
“direct” or “purposeful” intention on the one hand and
“oblique” intention on the other. In medicine, it is permitted
under certain circumstances to administer a dying person a
pill, to reduce her pain, foreseeing but not intending that this
Chapter 4
The DDE can be given a more precise formulation. It’s usually seen as consisting of four components, though this formulation is not universally accepted. The DDE comes into
play when:
• the act considered independently of its harmful effects is not in itself wrong;
• the agent intends the good and does not intend the
harm either as means or end, though the individual
may foresee the harm;
• there is no way to achieve the good without causing
the harmful effects; and
• the harmful effects are not disproportionately large
relative to the good being sought.
The justifiability of targeting a particular military installation illustrates how the DDE can be applied. If it is legitimate to hit an installation with foreseen collateral damage
then, according to the DDE, the following conditions must
be met: (1) Hitting this installation must not in itself be
wrong. (2) Hitting the installation must be the intended act,
and the collateral damage must not be intended. (3) It must
be impossible to hit the military installation without causing the collateral damage. (4) The badness of the collateral
damage must not be disproportionate to the good that will
result from hitting the installation.
will hasten her death. But it is not permitted to administer a pill
intending to bring about her death. It is permitted in certain
circumstances to target a military installation in war, foreseeing that it will bring about some civilian casualties (that dread30
The Seventh Son of Count Landulf
ful euphemism, “collateral damage”); it is not permitted to
deliberately target civilians.
Whether or not we’re aware of it, the DDE appears to play a
role in our daily judgments of approbation and disapproval,
from deadly serious instances to more trivial ones. As philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny puts it, “There’s surely a difference
between appointing A over B for a professorship because A is
the best candidate and knowing B will be annoyed, and appointing A over B just to annoy B—I’ve known both cases.”7
Studies suggest that most people do find the DDE intuitively
appealing (see chapter 9).
Not everyone is persuaded. The American philosopher
Thomas Scanlon argues that the onus should be on pro­ponents
of the DDE to show why we should take it seriously. “[N]o one
has . . . come up with a satisfying theoretical explanation of
why . . . the difference between consequences that are intended and those that are merely foreseen . . . should make a
moral difference.”8 And there’s a practical worry that the DDE
could be used as an excuse to skip over or shimmy around the
taking of responsibility—especially when actions are taken on
behalf of a state. Should we be satisfied with the defense minister who orders a highly effective raid against a wicked enemy,
but who says, “I realized that villagers would be killed in the
bombing: that side-­effect of our operation is regrettable”?
Murder at the Hospital
The method of trolleyology involves conjuring up various trolleyesque scenarios and taking note of the (preferably) strong
moral intuitions that they elicit. Then he or she tries to formulate a plausible principle (or principles) that unites and makes
Chapter 4
sense of these intuitions. The principle should itself have some
intuitive plausibility: it should not feel arbitrary. Once located,
this principle can be transplanted into real life to help resolve
real dilemmas.
The DDE is one possible candidate for a principle that explains our intuitions. In exploring the validity of the DDE in
her article, Philippa Foot describes several imaginary thought
experiments. At the time, the hoariest involved a fat man—but
not the fat man who stars as the main protagonist of this book.
This earlier fat man is stuck in a hole in a cave. His head is out
of the cave, so he can breathe, but a party of potholers is behind him, and unable to escape. “Obviously,” wrote Foot, “the
right thing to do is to sit down and wait until the fat man grows
thin; but philosophers have arranged that flood waters should
be rising within the cave.”9 You have a stick of dynamite. The
question is; can you use it to blow up the fat man?
It is only on page twenty-­three that the trolley is introduced.
In fact, in its original form, it differs from the usual description
in a few details. Foot asks us to imagine not that the person facing the dilemma is a bystander near the track, but that he is
actually driving the train. More trivially, and peculiarly, the
vehicle is not a train, but the unthreatening, slow-­trundling
tram. Trams had largely disappeared from the developing
world by the time Foot wrote her article. Among the safest
forms of transport ever invented, they were not in the habit of
careening out of control, though one of the most celebrated
architects of the last two centuries, the Catalan modernist Antoni Gaudi, was knocked down by a tram in Barcelona in 1926
on his way to confession and died a few days later. (In the subsequent inquiry the driver said that he saw a man, who looked
like a tramp, cross his path—there had been no time to slow
down.) But “tram,” not “train,” was how Foot conceived her
The Seventh Son of Count Landulf
problem, and when it crossed the Atlantic it was Americanized
and became a trolley—hence trolleyology. (A rather unfortunate label for British readers, for whom the image is conjured
up of marauding supermarket carts full of baked beans and
washing powder.)
Foot compares her scenario, which we’re calling Spur—
where it seems right to turn the trolley (or tram) to save the five
even though one will thereby die—with a twin set of cases.
These cases run roughly as follows. Imagine we could either
save a patient with a massive dose of a drug, or save five patients
who only need a fifth each of this drug: what should we do?
Once again it would be permissible, thinks Foot, to save the
five though one will die. Now take the Transplant Case. Suppose that there are five seriously ill patients, all in urgent need
of organ transplants. Two require kidneys, two need lungs, one
needs a heart. They will die today unless the organs are forthcoming. As luck would have it, an innocent, healthy, young
man who has just the right blood type walks in for his annual
checkup: should the surgeon bump him off so that his organs
can be farmed out to the five at risk? We are expected to find
this proposal abominable.10
The fat man, a character we’re about to meet, dramatizes
much the same conundrum. The question is why our moral
reactions differ in these two kinds of cases—cases such as Spur,
where it seems morally acceptable to take a life to save five
lives, and cases such as Transplant, where it doesn’t. One disquieting aspect of these examples is that although most people
have instant, powerful, and unyielding reactions to them, they
can’t usually articulate why they feel so strongly, nor can they
easily identify a compelling rationale for the distinction they
want to draw.11
Yet the DDE appears to provide just such a rationale. After
Chapter 4
all, we do not intend to kill the single man in Spur, but we do
intend to kill the healthy patient whose organs will save five
lives. In Spur, if, after you’ve switched the train’s direction, the
man on the track were somehow to untie himself and escape in
the nick of time, you would be delighted. Not only would you
have avoided crashing into the five, but no one else would have
gotten hurt. But with the healthy patient, you require his
death—if the visitor’s suspicions were aroused when he saw an
orderly approach with a bludgeon, any successful escape by
him would mean the five would die. His death is a means to
save the five.
More about this distinction later. But Foot believed that we
do not need to resort to the DDE to explain our intuitions in
these scenarios. She proffered an alternative explanation. We
have, she says, both negative and positive duties. Negative duties are the duties not to interfere in other people’s lives (say by
killing them!). Positive duties are duties to help others. In Spur,
her dilemma is faced by the driver (not a bystander), and since
the driver presumably started the train, his terrible choice is
between killing one and killing five, with the former being obviously preferable to the latter. But in the hospital scenario,
although the surgeon has a positive duty to save the lives of the
five sick patients, this is in conflict and outweighed by the negative duty not to harm a healthy patient.
In a subsequent article Foot went on to highlight what to
her was a crucial point. In Spur one is merely redirecting an
already existing threat. The runaway train is a moving threat
and all we are doing is nudging it, as it were, elsewhere. But in
the hospital case, in taking the life of the healthy man, we have
introduced a whole new threat.
It’s a nice try, but can it be right? Has Philippa Foot solved
her own conundrum?
C h apt e r 5
Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan
Always recognize that human individuals are ends,
and do not use them as means to your end.
—Immanuel Kant
I am the man, the very fat man,
that watered the workers’ beer . . .
music hall song
Don’t want to be a fat man,
People would think that I was
Just good fun.
Would rather be a thin man,
I am so glad to go on being one.
—Ian Anderson, “Fat Man”
(performed by Jethro Tull)
Philippa Foot set trolleyologyrolling, but it was Judith
Jarvis Thomson, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, who delivered its most high-­voltage jolt. Struck
by Foot’s thought experiment she responded with not one but
two influential articles on what she labeled “The Trolley
Chapter 5
The first article included many thought experiments of her
own, involving, in order, the imaginary Alfred, Bert, Charles,
David, Frank, George, Harry, and Irving, all faced with life-­
and-­death decisions Thus Alfred, who hates his wife, puts
cleaning fluid in her coffee, killing her, while Burt, who also
hates his wife, sees her putting cleaning fluid in her coffee by
mistake (believing it to be cream). Although Burt has the antidote to the cleaning fluid, he does not give it to his wife—he
lets her die.
But it was only in the second article that Thomson introduced the stout character who appears in the title of this book.
Foot had originally contrasted the dilemma in Spur with the
option of framing an innocent man to save the five hostages
and of killing a man so that his organs could save five patients.
Thomson made the contrast starker still by introducing another trolley dilemma.
This time you’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway
track. You see the trolley hurtling along the track and, ahead of
it, five people tied to the rails. Can these five be saved? Again,
the moral philosopher has cunningly arranged matters so that
they can. There’s a very fat man leaning over the railing watching the trolley. If you were to push him over the footbridge he
would tumble down and smash on to the track below. He’s so
obese that his bulk would bring the trolley to a juddering halt.
Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the
other five.
Would you kill the fat man? Should you kill the fat man?
The reference to the man’s obesity is not gratuitous. If the
train could be stopped by anybody of any size, and if you’re
standing next to the fat man, then presumably the proper action is not to push the fat man, but to leapfrog over the railings
Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan
Figure 2. Fat Man. You’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway track.
You see the trolley hurtling along the track and, ahead of it, five people
tied to the rails. Can these five be saved? Again, the moral philosopher
has cunningly arranged matters so that they can be. There’s a very fat man
leaning over the railing watching the trolley. If you were to push him over
the footbridge, he would tumble down and smash on to the track below.
He’s so obese that his bulk would bring the trolley to a shuddering halt.
Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the other five.
Should you push the fat man?
and sacrifice yourself. A courageous and selfless act, but in this
example, it would be a futile gesture: ex hypothesi you are not
bulky enough to stop the train.
Even though the man’s size is a necessary component of the
thought experiment, and even though he is fictional, drawing
attention to his scale is considered by some to be indecent.
Chapter 5
Thomson introduced us to the fat man in an article in 1985,
when academics had long internalized the need to be cautious
and sensitive about prejudice and language, particularly as it
pertained to race, religion, sex, and sexuality. The obese, however, were not seen as a self-­identifying group subject to discrimination and in need of linguistic policing. By 2012, a UK
parliamentary body was recommending that calling someone
fat be deemed a “hate crime.” And in many of the articles
about trolleyology, the fat man has undergone a physical, or at
least a conceptual, makeover: he has become a “large” man, or
a “ “heavy” man, or a man of girth. Better still, for those easily
hurt, a near-­duplicate philosophical problem has been devised
that removes the need to allude to the potential victim’s corpulence. This time you’re standing on a footbridge next to a man
with a heavy backpack. Together, the man and his bag would
stop the train. Of course, there’s no time to unstrap the backpack and jump over the bridge wearing it yourself. The only
way to save the five is to push the man with the bag.
However described—and I am going to refer to the fat man
with his traditional label—it looks, once again, as though the
DDE might help explain the typical moral intuition here: that
we can turn the train in Spur but not push the fat man (or man
with bag). As previously argued, in Spur you don’t want to kill
the man on the track. But with Fat Man, you need the obese
man (or the man with the heavy bag) to come between the trolley and the five at risk. If he were not there, the five would die.
He is a means to an end, the end of stopping the trolley before
it kills five people. It would be a noble sacrifice if the fat man
were to jump of his own accord.2 But if you push him you are
using him as if he were an object, not an autonomous human
Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan
Like Philippa Foot, however, Thomson was told not to resort to the DDE to explain the difference. She wanted to appeal to the notion of “rights.” Like Foot, she was preoccupied
with one of the touchstone issues of the day, abortion, and had
already appealed to rights theory in her most famous article on
the subject, “A Defense of Abortion.”3 This article imagined
that you wake up one day lying next to a famous violinist, both
of you plugged into a machine. The violinist had had a fatal
kidney ailment. On discovering that you alone have the right
blood type to help, the Society of Music Lovers hooked the two
of you into a contraption so that your kidneys could be used by
him as well. Medical staff explain that, regrettably, were the
violinist to be unplugged, he would die but, not to worry, this
awkwardness will only last nine months, by which time he’ll be
back to normal and the two of you can go your separate ways.
Thomson’s claim was that it might be very nice of you to permit the violinist to remain yoked to your body, but he or the
hospital would have no right to insist that you do so.
Likewise, Thomson appealed to rights in Fat Man. Toppling
the fat man is an infringement of his rights. But turning the
trolley in Spur is not an infringement of anybody’s rights. “It is
not morally required of us that we let a burden descend out of
the blue onto five when we can make it instead descend onto
one.”4 The bystander is not just minimizing the number of
deaths by turning the train down the spur; he or she is minimizing “the number of deaths which get caused by something that
already threatens people.”5
Note the similarity to Foot’s argument that in Spur one is
merely redirecting a preexisting threat, whereas pushing the
poor fat man introduces a completely new threat. This distinction feels plausible: it feels as if it should carry some moral
Chapter 5
Figure 3. Lazy Susan. In Lazy Susan you can save the five by twisting the
revolving plate 180 degrees—­this will have the unfortunate consequence
of placing one man directly in the path of the train. Should you rotate the
Lazy Susan?
weight. But one trolleyologist6 insists it does not. She offers, as
evidence, Lazy Susan.7
In Lazy Susan, you can save the five by twisting the revolving plate 180 degrees—this will have the consequence of placing one man directly in the path of the train. Nonetheless, says
the inventor of this scenario, it’s permissible to turn the lazy
susan—even though this is not about diverting an existing
Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan
Figure 4. Loop. The trolley is heading toward five men who, as it happens, are all skinny. If the trolley were to collide into them they would
die, but their combined bulk would stop the train. You could instead turn
the trolley onto a loop. One fat man is tied onto the loop. His weight
alone will stop the trolley, preventing it from continuing around the loop
and killing the five. Should you turn the trolley down the loop?
threat; for the individual who will die, it introduces an entirely
new threat.
You may not share that intuition. If you do, the search for a
principle to explain our other intuitions in Fat Man and Spur
Chapter 5
continues. But what’s wrong with the DDE as the answer?
Why wouldn’t Thomson appeal to that? Well, because of a trolley problem she invents that we can call Loop.
A number of weeks have passed since you were faced with
an instant and excruciating choice in Spur of whether to turn
the train down the side track. Then, you made the correct decision: you turned the train. In the interim, workers have extended the side track, so that it circles around back to the main
track. Once again you’ve gone for a walk and find yourself in
the midst of a similar nightmare, though with a slight modification. In Loop, the train is heading toward five men who, as it
happens, are all skinny. If the train were to collide into them
they would die, but their combined bulk would stop the train.
You could instead turn the train onto a side track. The side
track has one fat man. His weight alone will stop the train,
preventing it from continuing around the loop and killing the
five. There’s this key difference. In Spur, if the single man were
to escape, that would—in the much lampooned words of the
German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz—be the best of all possible worlds.8 Not so in Loop. In Loop, if the man on the side
track were to disappear, the five skinny men would be killed:
this time you need his death to save the five. The collision with
this man is therefore surely part of your plan.
Nonetheless, writes Thomson, given that we agree that it
would be acceptable, if not obligatory, to turn the train in Spur,
it must be equally acceptable to do so in Loop, for, as she puts
it, “we cannot really suppose that the presence or absence of
that extra bit of track makes a major moral difference as to what
an agent may do in these cases.”9
If Thomson is right, the DDE cannot be the principle to
justify a distinction between Spur and Fat Man.10 For in Loop
we don’t merely foresee the fat man’s death: we need the fat
Fat Man, Loop, and Lazy Susan
man to die—we intend his death. Turning the trolley in Loop
falls foul of the DDE.
So it looks as if we’ve hit the buffers again. We have identified a common intuition that it is sometimes wrong to take a
life even though five lives would be saved. Can we ground this
intuition in principle? The attempt to do that takes us back to
the eighteenth century and the remote Prussian outpost of
C h apt e r 6
Ticking Clocks and the
Sage of Königsberg
Out of the crooked timber of humanity
no straight thing was ever made.
—Immanuel Kant
An eleven-­year-­old boyhas been kidnapped. He was last
seen getting off the Number 35 bus on his way home on the
final school day before the autumn holiday. He’s now been
missing for three days and is considered to be in mortal danger.
The police have arrested the chief suspect. He was captured
after picking up a ransom of one million Euros. The ransom
had been demanded in a note left on the gate of the boy’s
home—and had been dropped, as agreed, at a trolley stop on a
Sunday night. Instead of releasing the boy, the man went on a
spending spree with his million Euros. He booked a foreign
holiday; he ordered a C-­class Mercedes.
The police are as certain as they can be that they have the
guilty man—a tall, powerfully built law student, who’d previously been employed to give the boy extra tutoring. Now they
urgently need to locate the boy. They don’t know how long
they have to save his life: is he locked away in a cellar, without
Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
access to water and food? The interrogation of the law student
begins: the clock ticks—and ticks, and ticks, and ticks. A search
involving 1,000 police, helicopters, and tracker dogs yields
nothing. And, after seven hours of questioning, the suspect has
still not given up the boy’s whereabouts.
The police officer in charge writes down an instruction to
the interrogators: they are to threaten to torture the suspect. “A
specialist” will be flown in, they tell the suspect, whose function it will be to inflict unimaginable pain until they extract the
information they need.
The suspect cracks. He reveals where the boy is being held.
An Icy Gust
This kidnapping occurred in Germany in 2002. The kidnapper was Magnus Gäfgen, a law student in his mid-­twenties.
The victim, Jakob von Metzler, was the heir to a fortune: his
father ran Germany’s oldest family-­owned bank.
The story does not have a happy ending. Frightened, under
pressure, faced with a horrifying ordeal, Gäfgen told the police
that Jakob could be found at a lake near Frankfurt. When they
arrived, they discovered the boy’s body: he’d already been
killed, and was in a sack, wrapped in plastic and still dressed in
the blue top and sand-­colored trousers in which he’d last been
The case became a cause célèbre, not just because Jakob
came from a prominent family, but more especially after allegations surfaced of the torture threat. Frankfurt’s deputy police
chief, Wolfgang Daschner, who had written the “torture” note,
gave various interviews to the press. He’d faced a stark choice,
he said. “I can just sit on my hands and wait until maybe Gäf45
Chapter 6
gen eventually decides to tell the truth and in the meantime
the child is dead, or I do everything I can now to prevent that
from happening.”1
The torture threat, apparently, had not been an idle one. A
martial arts trainer had been put on call: the police believed
the suspect could be hurt without lasting physical damage
being inflicted upon him.
There were expressions of outrage at Daschner’s behavior.
One MP from the Green Party warned that, “if you open the
window, even just a crack, the cold air of the Middle Ages will
fill the whole room.”2 But Daschner also had vocal supporters,
and polls showed that the majority of Germans believed the
threat was a reasonable means of potentially saving a life.
When, in court, Gäfgen’s lawyer attempted to use the torture
threat to have the case dismissed, spectators were heard to
grumble, “Incredible: How many rights does he want for this
guy?”3 And amidst the uproar from human rights groups, Daschner commented, “Not one single person has been able to
tell me what I should have done.”4
No-­harm Zone
There could be no trolleyology without deontology.
Deontology states that there are certain things, like torture,
that you just shouldn’t do. We mustn’t take an entirely impersonal perspective on morality. An individual’s well-­
shouldn’t just be stirred and dissolved into some giant vat of
well-­being soup. We can’t torture someone to death even if this
would save five lives—even if it would, in the utilitarian sense,
contribute to the total sum of happiness. Some deontologists
Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
are absolutists—for them, nothing could ever justify torture.
But most accept that in certain circumstances deontological
constraints can be overridden, for example if the future of the
planet is at stake.
Central to the history of deontology was an eighteenth-­
century professor, the guru of Königsberg (a city then in East
Prussia, now a Russian enclave renamed Kaliningrad), Immanuel Kant. Kant made major contributions in numerous areas of
philosophy, not just ethics. He is among the greatest metaphysicians of all time—preoccupied with the limits of what we can
know and understand about reality.
Given his significance one might expect library shelves to
groan under weighty biographies of his life. In fact there are
few such tomes, explained by the fact that Kant lived an exceptionally regular and uneventful life. He attended the University of Königsberg and later taught there. There is virtually no
account of his life in Königsberg that doesn’t include the possibly apocryphal story that the citizens of the city used to set
their watches by his movements—he would take a daily walk at
4:30 p.m. and go up and down the street eight times. The one
time he was late (another possibly apocryphal story has it) was
when he received a copy of Rousseau’s tract on education,
Émile, and was so enthralled and absorbed by it that he lost all
track of time.
In Kant’s view, persons must never be treated merely as a
means to some other end. This was expressed most clearly in
one formulation (there are several) of his “Categorical Imperative.” The Categorical Imperative is an absolute moral requirement for all times, all situations, all circumstances, and from
which all other duties and obligations follow. Kant believed
the Categorical Imperative could be derived through the exer-
Chapter 6
cise of our reason alone. The relevant version of his Categorical Imperative—the second formulation—asserts that we
should always treat others “never merely as a means to an end,
but always at the same time as an end.”
It’s a simple idea to state, though it’s hard to work out what
it entails in particular cases, both real and imaginary. However, its influence has been pervasive: the modern human
rights movement is almost inconceivable without Kant. (In
surely its most ironic use, the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for organizing the mass deportation of Jews to the concentration camps, justified himself during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 by citing Kant’s Categorical
One of those who has tried to set out in more detail what it
means for humans to be enveloped in a moral carapace, a protective shield that is both sacred and inviolable, is Philippa
The existence of a morality which refuses to sanction the
automatic sacrifice of the one for the good of the many . . .
secures to each individual a kind of moral space, a space
which others are not allowed to invade. Nor is it impossible
to see the rationale of the principle that one man should
not want evil, serious evil, to come on another, even to
spare more people the same loss. It seems to define a kind
of solidarity between human beings, as if there is some
sense in which no one is to come out against one of his fellow men.6
If there are certain moral absolutes—rules that tell us certain
actions are always wrong and can never be sanctioned—then
one of them, surely, is the prohibition on torture.
Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
Clocks and Clichés
Browse through one section of the moral philosophy literature
and you’ll hear a cacophony of ticking clocks. The ticking-­
clock scenario is a favorite among ethicists debating the permissibility, or otherwise, of torture. A terrorist has been captured: you know that he has planted a small atomic bomb in a
major city that is due to detonate in two hours. The terrorist
will not tell you where the bomb is, and unless you use torture
to obtain the information from him, thousands of people will
die. What should you do?
Post–9/11, when it became evident that there were people in
the world bent on the goal of mass civilian murder, the ticking
bomb of ethical debate took on a practical and public reality. A
distinguished law professor, Alan Dershowitz, scandalized liberal opinion by writing a book in which he proposed the idea of
a “torture warrant” that would be given to interrogators by governments in certain extreme circumstances.7 Since then there
have been well-­publicized torture scandals, such as the water-­
boarding of al-­Qaeda operative, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,
thought to be a mastermind behind the 9/11 atrocities.
In response to the ticking-­bomb case, deontologists respond
in one of five ways.
First, there are those who deny that the ticking bomb reflects any possible empirical reality. In reality, threats are not
usually imminent: there is no specific deadline, nor is the
threat inevitable. In reality, we couldn’t know for sure that lives
would be lost. What’s more, torture may prove ineffective or,
worse, counterproductive—producing false confessions. And
there may be alternative and legitimate ways to extract reliable
information or in some other way resolve the crisis.8
Chapter 6
Second, some deontologists are prepared to swallow the
logical conclusion of an absolutist position—they continue to
deny the permissibility of torture, regardless of how many lives
would be saved.
Third—and this is perhaps the standard view—there are deontologists who argue that if the consequences of not torturing
somebody are truly calamitous (leading, for example, to the
deaths of thousands), then the constraint against torture can be
Fourth, a few deontologists maintain that a terrorist who has
planted a ticking bomb is morally liable to be tortured if that’s
the only way to obtain vital information. In other words, there
is no constraint on torturing this person. It’s not that the potential consequences of the explosion outweigh any constraint;
rather, the terrorist has, by his actions, forfeited his right not to
be tortured, and his torture is acceptable even if the bomb for
which he’s responsible threatened only one life.9
Fifth, there are those who determinedly refuse to engage
with the scenario,who believe the justifiability of torture should
not be up for discussion at all: merely to raise the possibility
reflects a sickness of the mind, and a contamination of the culture. As one philosopher puts it: “Society is to some degree
defined by what is undiscussable in it. For example, in our society, it’s undiscussable whether we should enslave our black
population . . . the things we find undiscussable are things that
we treat as having no two sides.”10 Torture is one such subject,
it is said: a subject with only one side.
The Gäfgen kidnapping was about as close to the ticking-­
bomb cliché as real life gets, though even here the parallels are
far from exact: since, as it turned out, torturing the kidnapper
would have been futile. Jakob had already been killed, and
thus there was no life to save. But, nonetheless, it nicely illus50
Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
trates the clash between deontological and consequentialist
That clash is a common trope in literature. Euripides’ play,
Iphigenia in Aulis, revolves around Agamemnon’s decision
whether to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. If he does
so, the goddess Artemis will stop meddling with the elements
and release the wind that is holding Agamemnon’s fleet in harbor, thus allowing Agamemnon’s troops to sail against the archenemy Troy and ending the threat of their mutiny. (Iphigenia
eventually resolves the dilemma by sacrificing herself.)
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky puts these words
into his character Ivan, speaking to his brother:
Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine
that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny
with the object of making people happy in the finale, of
giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must
inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature,
[one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her
unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on
such conditions?11
The trolley problem speaks to such dilemmas. The Doctrine
of Double Effect cited in trolleyology is clearly, in the jargon,
nonconsequentialist, since it claims a distinction can be drawn
between two acts that have identical consequences. And the
DDE has several deontological siblings. Many philosophers
claim that there is a distinction between negative and positive
duties, between doing and allowing (killing and letting die),
and between acting and omitting. Thus, Philippa Foot claims
that failing to save a life by not donating to charity is not nearly
as bad as actually taking a life: “We are not inclined to think
that it would be no worse to murder to get money for some
Chapter 6
comfort such as a nice winter coat than it is to keep the money
back before sending a donation to Oxfam or Care.”12
Those who reject such distinctions tend to adopt the following strategy to discredit them. They describe a pair of cases in
which the relevant distinction applies, but that are otherwise
identical, and that no right-­minded person could believe differ
in any morally significant way.
Thus, take the distinction between acts and omissions. We
are told that some acts are worse than some omissions. Purportedly it is worse to kill than to fail to save a life. But now imagine
that two men, Smith and Jones, both stand to make a fortune if
their nephew dies. Smith sneaks into his bathroom one night
when his nephew is taking a bath and drowns him, making it
look like an accident. In the alternative case, Jones sneaks into
the bathroom: he’s about to drown him when the boy slips, hits
his head, and drowns on his own. Jones watches him die. It
doesn’t look as if there’s a moral distinction between Smith and
Jones, even though Smith acts whereas Jones merely fails to act
(lets die). And we can thus conclude, runs the argument, that
there is no fundamental moral difference between acts and
Such examples have been seen as a powerful attack on the
act-­omission and related distinctions. And if the attack succeeds, it has profound repercussions: it makes us, as the moral
philosopher Peter Singer believes, as guilty for knowingly failing to save life as for actually taking life. But those who want to
maintain that such distinctions have moral force have a crafty
response. Just because the distinction is sometimes irrelevant,
they say, it doesn’t mean it’s always irrelevant. Even if we accept that Smith and Jones are equally culpable, that doesn’t
prove that all acts are morally equivalent, other things being
equal, to all omissions.
Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
This defense is taken up by American philosopher Frances
Kamm.14 The puzzle, then, is to determine when a distinction
carries weight, and when it doesn’t—and that demands an explanation as to why the distinction is morally significant in
some cases but not others.
View through the Kamm-­corder
History’s best-known trolley victim, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, is celebrated for his ornate, neogothic/baroque
His unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, draws
millions of tourists with its weird, somewhat threatening spires
like bejeweled cruise missiles. If there’s a philosopher whose
style most resembles Gaudi’s, it’s Frances Kamm. A night creature, she toils away into the early hours devising thought experiments. “I feel that I’ve been admitted to a whole world of distinctions that haven’t been seen by others or at least not by me.
And I’m taken by it as I would be by a beautiful picture.”15
In the search for a formulation of the principles that should
govern how we can and can’t treat people, Kamm offers (and
critiques) some bafflingly baroque principles. Layer of complexity is heaped upon layer. There are principles galore.
There is the principle of alternate reason, the principle of contextual interaction, the principle of ethical integrity, the principle of instrumental rationality, the principle of irrelevant
goods, the principle of irrelevant need, the principle of irrelevant rights, and the principle of Secondary Wrong. And we
should not forget the principle of the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives of Permissible Harm, or the principle of Sec53
Chapter 6
ondary Permissibility. The latter two are sufficiently significant
to merit their own acronym, the PPH and the PSP.
There’s also a smorgasbord of doctrines. However, among
them, one is worth highlighting, because it illustrates the ingenuity of Kamm’s work, the fine and subtle distinctions she
draws, and also because this distinction, at least, has powerful
intuitive appeal. She calls it the Doctrine of Triple Effect. It
has a third distinction in addition to the two that are familiar
from the DDE, namely effects that are intended and effects
that are foreseen. She explains it through what she calls the
Party Case.
Suppose that I want to give a party, so that people have a
good time, though I realize that a party would result in a terrible mess: there would be glasses to wash, carpets to vacuum,
and wine stains to scrub off. I foresee that if my friends have
fun, they will feel indebted to me (not a nice feeling) and so
help me clean up. I decide to hold the party but only because I
foresee that they’ll help me afterward. But I don’t hold the
party in order to make my friends feel indebted, and thus help
me: this is not part of my goal. My reason for holding the party
is so guests have fun.16 Kamm draws the conclusion that I don’t
intend that my guests feel indebted. Similarly, says Kamm,
there’s a distinction between doing something because it will
cause the hitting of a bystander, and doing it intending to cause
the hitting of a bystander.
This pretty distinction can assist in various trolley scenarios.17 Take the Six Behind One case.
The bystander’s predicament is almost exactly as in Spur,
with this difference. Behind the one person on the spur are six
people, tied to the track. The one person, if hit, will block the
trolley. Since it is permissible to turn the trolley in Spur, a natural intuition is that it must be equally permissible to do so in
Ticking Clocks and the Sage of Königsberg
Figure 5. Six Behind One. You are standing on the side of the track. A
runaway trolley is hurtling toward you. Ahead are five people, tied to the
track. If you do nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily you
are next to a signal switch: turning this switch will send the out-­of-­control
trolley down a side track, a spur, just ahead of you. On the spur you see
one person tied to the track: changing direction will inevitably result in
this person being killed. Behind the one person are six people, also tied to
the track. The one person, if hit, will stop the trolley. What should you do?
This example is from Otsuka 2008.
Six Behind One. But in Spur, the decision to turn the train was
justified on the grounds that there was no intention to kill the
one. As evidence for this we can imagine how we would feel if
this person managed to escape: relief and joy. It would be the
Chapter 6
best of all possible worlds. The trolley would have been diverted from the five, and no one else would have been killed.
But we can’t say the same of Six Behind One. In Six Behind
One we want and need the trolley to hit the one. If it doesn’t do
so, if the one escapes, the trolley will roll on to kill six. There
would be no point turning the trolley unless it hit this one.
So does that mean that if we turn the trolley in Six Behind
One, we intend to kill the one? And are we thus to deduce that
turning the trolley in Six Behind One is morally unacceptable?
That doesn’t seem right, not least because hitting the one is not
used as a means to saving the five. We didn’t turn the trolley so
that we can hit the one.
It’s here that Kamm’s distinction trundles to the rescue. I
can say about the Six Behind One case that if I turn the trolley,
I do so not in order to hit the one, but because it will hit the
one—and that’s what makes it alright.
As with so many of the scenarios, intuitions about the Six
Behind One case will hinge on what the intention is in turning
the trolley. Perhaps, then, we should try to clarify what we
mean by intention. And we can illustrate the difficulties with a
genuine train problem that beset Philippa Foot’s most illustrious relation.
C h apt e r 7
Paving the Road to Hell
What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm
goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?
—Ludwig Wittgenstein
Even a dog knows the difference between
being kicked and being stumbled over.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
In mid-­1894, Grover Cleveland had personal and public preoccupations on his mind. There was concern about his health
and suspicion that he had a malignant tumor. More happily,
his family was expanding. His young wife had eight months
earlier given birth to a second child, Esther, the only presidential child to this day to be born in the White House itself (Esther would eventually move to England, where her daughter
Philippa, would grow up). Meanwhile, seven hundred miles
away, in Chicago, the president had a looming and very public
trolley problem: an industrial relations crisis that threatened
the economic and social stability of the nation.
It had been a boom period for the railroads—Chicago was
the railroad capital of the United States, the Pullman Palace
Chapter 7
Car Company was about the most prosperous company in the
land, and George Pullman, its austere founder, was one of
America’s wealthiest citizens. Pullman was an architect of our
modern rail system. He built sleeping cars, renowned for their
sleek design and opulence. Some of his trains offered exquisite
food prepared by revered chefs, and there was attentive service
from staff, many of them freed slaves (in the post–Civil War
period, Pullman became the largest employer of African Americans). Traveling in a Pullman car was considered the height of
Working for Pullman was less of a privilege. His rail company had an undeserved reputation for compassionate paternalism. In order to house his thousands of employees, George
Pullman came up with the notion of building a model city
(one that, today, you can visit and tour), just south of Chicago.
The city had all the amenities Pullman deemed necessary—
parks, shops, a kindergarten, a library—and he was hailed nationwide as a tremendous benefactor and visionary. He himself
said he loved the town like one of his children, and there were
a few things to be said in its favor: decent health facilities, for
example. But behind the façade, the truth was nastier. Some of
the houses were no better than shacks, and often overcrowded:
poverty was rife. Pullman ran the place like a despot and not a
nickel was donated in charity. The town was expected to pay its
way; there were rents and fees for all services (including for use
of the library). The one small bar charged inflated prices to
deter laborers from frequenting it. The inhabitants were not
consulted about what they might want and dissenting views
were discouraged: there were no town hall meetings. Leases
could be terminated on short notice and tenants might find
themselves with nowhere else to go in Pullman, and thus effectively expelled from the tycoon’s utopia.
Paving the Road to Hell
When, in 1883, the U.S. national economy went into a dramatic downturn, the Pullman Company was itself inevitably
and acutely affected. Many workers were laid off. Those that
held onto t…
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