One of the best thought experiments in ethics is the trolley problem. In this problem there is a trolley that will crash and kill five workers, but if you pull a switch to divert it only one worker on another track dies. A similar experiment says that if you push a fat man off a bridge in front of the trolley he will die but the trolley will stop, saving five lives. What is an ethical person to do in this situation? Opinions differ, but in actuality nobody should either pulling the switch of pushing over the fat man.
In the first experiment, it is important to note that nobody has caused the trolley to go out of control. There is no malicious intent on the part of the inanimate object. Thus, the out of control trolley is just be an accident of nature, a result of our imperfect world. Nobody has chosen for this situation to develop and if a person was not at the switch nature would take its course and the five men would die.
However, if the choice is made to flip the switch, suddenly a person is taking an action. Whoever flipped the switch decided on his or her own accord to cause the death of one person instead of just letting nature take its course and kill the five men. Although that seems like a perfectly moral action, it is not. The problem is that when we make that choice, the focus is not on the ethics of the action itself, rather the focus is on the outcomes. In this case the choice means that the life of five people is more important than the life of one, which is a choice that nobody can make.
If the trolley was purposefully being driven into the five men, then it is no longer an act of nature and the situation is different, but in this case the trolley is acting with blind fate (for lack of a better word) and the person flipping the switch is responsible for the death that comes about. Therefore they are acting immorally.
In the case of the fat man, a person is also not justified in pushing him over, but it is possible to appeal to Kant to see why. Kant’s Second Categorical Imperative states that it is immoral to use any person as a means. Instead, human lives are an end in themselves. By using the fat man as basically a road block, the person pushing him ignores his inherent worth as human being and uses him as just a sack of meat, bones and blood. This makes the act immoral, according to Kant’s Second Categorical Imperative.
One could argue that this Categorical Imperative also justifies flipping the switch in the first experiment since the death of the one person on the track is just an unfortunate side effect of our rational attempt to save the lives of five people. But, this situation really is no different. In the first case, flipping the switch still uses the one person as a means to an end, since in the thought experiment the person with the switch has perfect knowledge that the trolley will kill the worker. Instead of viewing the worker as a human being, the death of one man is used as an unfortunate side effect of a necessary decision and is used to justify the killing. This is immoral.
Of course, in a world of utilitarian principles the idea that flipping the switch or pushing the fat man is immoral comes across as completely ridiculous. For a utilitarian, morality is based on maximizing happiness. When anybody has the choice between saving five lives or saving one life, the choice must always be made to save five lives. Not only is that the right choice, but it is the choice that is morally obligatory.
Utilitarianism works off the principle that the ends justify the means in all situations. If more lives are protected or made better by an action, that choice should be made as long as it does not make any more suffering. To not pull the switch or push the fat man would be an immoral action, if the world is going by utilitarian principles.
However, utilitarianism has problems that do not make it a viable option. The main problem with utilitarianism is that it is fundamentally impossible to know what choices will bring about the most happiness. A person would have to be omniscient to truly make utilitarian decisions. A slight change to the thought experiment shows the problems. If the one man who died had seven kids to feed by himself and the five men who would die without the switch being pulled had absolutely no family at all, then what would be the utilitarian choice? Easy. Let the trolley kill the five men, because eight lives (counting the kids) are a better choice than five.
But in the moment it is impossible for the person throwing the switch to know that. He does not have the time or means to interview every person and then make the decision. The problem here is that an ethical system is not much of an ethical system if it relies on the perfect judgement of omniscience. It is impossible for a person to know all the details of a life, and thus utilitarianism becomes impractical as a way to live a life.
When it comes to making choices, the best ways to live is Kant’s Categorial Imperatives. These are the only ethical systems that make sense when universalized and best resist using twisted version of ethical theories to do the wrong thing, and the trolley car experiment proves this.