What Does Matter? The Case for Killing the Trolley Problem (Or Letting it Die)
Philosophical Quarterly 62:505-529 (July 2012)
Posted: 10 Mar 2011 Last revised: 18 Oct 2012
Date Written: March 24, 2011
For the past forty years, a significant portion of nonconsequentialist moral philosophy has been devoted to refining our moral intuitions about the harms to others we may or may not causally bring about through our acts or omissions. Discussion has focused almost exclusively on trolley‐type hypotheticals that share the following features: The consequences of the available choices are stipulated to be known with certainty ex ante; the agents are all individuals (as opposed to institutions); the would‐be victims are identifiable individuals in close proximity to the agents; and the agents face a one‐off decision about how to act (that is to say, readers are not invited to consider whether the moral principles by which the immediate dilemma is resolved can be scaled up to a large number of (or large number) cases).
Derek Parfit’s 'On What Matters' is the most recent addition to the trolley‐problem oeuvre. In this review essay, I argue that the tyranny of trolley‐type problems in philosophical thought has yielded moral principles that (whatever their moral virtues) cannot be applied beyond trolley‐type cases. In particular, they cannot help resolve the permissibility of the sort of conduct that accounts for virtually all harm to others outside of the criminal context: socially useful conduct that poses some risk of harm to as yet unidentified others. If nonconsequentialist principles about permissible harm to others cannot shed light on the problem of risk, they are doomed to at best marginal significance.
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