Understanding Morality and Ethics with the Trolley Problem

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What is Morality and Ethics?

Morality and ethics are two terms that a lot of people think are quite interchangeable. Outside the realm of philosophy, people define morality as personal conviction on what is right and wrong. On the other hand, they define ethics as what the society or community defines as right and wrong.

Well, this is not the case when it comes to philosophy. In philosophy, the definition of these two terms are a bit different.

The Trolley Problem

This might sound intuitive, but you can easily understand this by using the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment popularized by Philippa Foot in the 1960s.

In the Trolley Problem, there is a runaway trolley on a collision course with five people on the track. These five people can’t leave the track and would surely get killed by the runaway trolley.

There is also another track with just one person who can’t escape from the track. You are standing near a switch that would divert the trolley from the track with five people to the track with just one person. In essence, you have the option to kill one person to save five lives, if you pull the switch.

A lot of people choose to pull the switch, to kill one man and save five people.

However, it gets tricky if the scenario changes a bit. Supposing that there is only one track with five people on it, and you are standing on a bridge directly above the track. On the bridge with you is a fat man. If you push the fat man from the bridge unto the

track, his body mass would stop the trolley from killing the five trapped people. But he is going to die in the process.

A lot of respondents choose not to push the fat man unto the track. This is quite absurd because the outcome is still the same – lose one life to save five lives.

The moral and ethics stance

The moral stance on this is that it is wrong for you to use the switch in the first instance, and refuse not to push the fat man in the second instance. In essence, the moral view is that your underlying actions should always be consistent; there are no exceptions.

On the other hand, ethics allows a person to change his stance, if he can give a reasonable rationale for doing that. So, in the case of the trolley problem, it would be okay to refuse to push the fat man, if you can give a reason for the change in position.

One possible reason for people choosing not to push the fat man is that there is something personal with pushing someone to their death. At least, with pulling a lever, the machines do most of the dirty work.

In essence, morality means that your positions should not change if the end result is the same. With ethics, you can change your position or actions, if you have valid reasons for doing so.

Kostas Deroukakis
Love to search, to try, to give, to learn. Knowledge, is the road for this achievement
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