Thomsons Argument Of The Trolley Problem Philosophy Essay


A utilitarian is concerned with providing the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people, so in this first case a utilitarian would agree with Thomson and would say that it is mandatory to pull the lever and save the greater number of people. An opposing view would say that pulling the lever constitutes as a moral wrong, and would make the bystander partially responsible for the death. One has a moral obligation to get involved in these cases just by being present in the scenario and being able to change the outcome. Deciding to do nothing would be considered an immoral act if one values five lives more than one. In the first case, the bystander does not intend to harm anyone; the harm will be done regardless of which way the trolley goes. In the second case, pushing and harming the large man is the only way to save the five people on the trolley.

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in contrast, Thomson argues that a key distinction between the first trolley problem and the second case is that in the first case, you simply redirect the harm, but in the second case, you actually have to do something to the large man to save the five workers. Thomson states that in the first case, no worker has more of a right than the other not to be killed, but in the second case, the large man does have a right not to be pushed over the bridge, violating his right to life.

To put the first trolley case in a different perspective I will present a similar case. Something has gone terribly wrong on an airplane and is inevitably about to crash and is heading straight to a heavily populated area. The airplane pilot knows that regardless innocent people will die so he turns the plane towards a less populated area, killing less innocent people. Was the pilots action to steer the plane in a different direction morally permissible? Thomson would say that the pilot's actions were correct, because the greater populated are has the same right to live as the less populated area, and you are merely deflecting the harm to kill less people which is morally permissible because no rights have been violated.

Thomson presents an alternative case to the second trolley problem to better illustrate her argument. In this case, a surgeon has 5 patients that are all in need of organ transplants, and they will die without the organ, but since they all have a rare blood type there are no organs available. A traveler comes into the office for a check up, and the doctor discovers that this traveler has the necessary organs that could save these five dying patients. The doctor asks the traveler if he would donate and but he sincerely declines. Would it be morally permissible for the doctor to kill the bystander and operate anyway? Thomson would argue that it is not permissible to operate on the traveler, because the doctor would be violating his right to life. This differs from the first trolley case because in the first case you are simply deflecting the harm as opposed to the second trolley case, and the transplant case, you have to act and do something to an innocent person in order to save the five people. In the first case none of the workers have more of a right than the other not to be killed, but in the second case the large man has a right not to be killed. In the transplant case, a utilitarian is concerned with the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, so just like in the first case where a utilitarian would say to pull the lever to kill one and save five, he would do the same in the transplant case to kill one and save five. Thomson disagrees and states that in the first case killing one is a side effect of killing five, in the transplant case you are violating a person's right where the act could have been avoided to begin with. Thomson states that killing is worse a death caused by letting someone die.

In the first trolley case it would seem rational to agree that the person is morally obligated to pull the lever and save the five people. In the second case, the person should not be forced to push the large man onto the track because in this case he is killing the man to save the others where as in the first case it is inevitably one or the other. It would also seem rational that the doctor should not kill the man for the transplant because it is similar to the second case. Although in every case you are sacrificing one to save five, there are situations where it is not morally permissible to kill the one person, such as the second case and the transplant case. In these case the persons right to life is violated, and therefore would make it morally permissible to kill them.

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In order for Thomson to justify her opinions she needs to identify the differences in both cases that is strong enough to make a valid argument. In short, Thomson identifies that in both cases there is an innocent bystander who is not responsible in any of the events, but has the opportunity to get involved in order to save five people instead of the one. She assumes that there is no relationship or tension at all between the bystander and the workers so he has a clear mind on what his decision should be. Thomson states that we need to focus on the rights of the people as a "means to an end" relationship between the bystander and the workers. She argues that in both cases the bystander does wrong to the person whose life he chooses to sacrifice, but in the second case where the bystander pushes the large man, there is a direct violation of his rights. By performing the act of pushing, the bystander is directly violating on the large mans right not to be killed. This differs from the first case where the bystander pulls a lever to kill one and save five, because it does not violate the single workers rights; diverting a train does not violate anyone's rights, but pushing an innocent man does. Thomson feels that this explains why the bystander is allowed to intervene by pulling the lever because the bystander can maximize the utility without violating anyone's rights, whereas in the second case, in order to maximize utility the bystander would have to violate someone's rights. The problem arises that in the first case, although the bystander is not directly violating the single workers right, he is indirectly violating his right not to be killed. Thomson replies to this concern by saying that although this is true but it being direct or indirect is not relevant when a person's right not to be killed is concerned.