Morality vs Ethics: the problem with trolleys
“Aha” says the Moral Philosopher triumphantly, polishing his monocle ferociously with a large handkerchief. “You have contradicted yourself! If you say yes to the first case you should say yes to the second, for you have already revealed your acceptance of the principle that one person should be sacrificed for the many.”
Many people – even many philosophers – think that morality and ethics are the same thing. But they are not. Morality is primarily about making correct choices, while ethics is about proper reasoning.
Take the so called ‘trolley problem‘, a thought experiment about runaway trains invented by the late Philippa Foot and very popular with moral philosophers of a certain whimsical bent. You see that a runway train is hurtling down a track, and that it is going to hit a group of 5 people standing in its path and will certainly kill them all. However, you happen to be standing next to a switch that can divert the train down another track where only a single person is standing. What would you do?
Most people say they would pull the switch and kill 1 rather than 5. (Visit philosophyexperiments.comto read the full outline, try out your own intuitions against various iterations of the situation, and find out what other people decided.)
But if the terms of the situation are slightly changed, people tend to give quite a different answer. Suppose that there is no switch, but that you are instead standing on a bridge over the railway track next to a very fat man, and you are sure that if you pushed him onto the track his bulk (but not yours) would be sufficient to stop the train before it hit the group of people. What do you think now? Should you kill the fat man?