Wednesday, March 27, 2013

[PHI 2200] Jigsaw meets the Trolley Problem

In responding to trolley scenarios, many people rationalize their judgments by saying something along the following lines:
In the Switch scenario, it is morally right to pull the lever and sacrifice one person to save four, whereas in the Fat Man scenario it is morally wrong to push the fat man off the bridge, even though the consequences are the same, because pulling the lever is an indirect act, whereas pushing the fat man is a direct act of killing.

But why think that the direct/indirect distinction makes any moral difference (i.e., that directly killing a person is morally worse than indirectly killing a person) rather than merely a psychological difference (i.e., directly killing a person feels worse than indirectly killing a person) in these trolley cases?

Consider the horror franchise Saw. In these films, the Jigsaw Killer and his apprentices concoct diabolical "tests" or "games" designed to eventually lead to the death of those who are being "tested."

Would we consider Jigsaw any less of a moral deviant simply because he never directly kills his victims but rather concocts diabolical plans to indirectly kill them? If not, why would the direct/indirect distinction make any moral difference in the trolley scenarios?


  1. Michelle PunsamieMarch 27, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    In the trolley examples, there is a distinct moral difference between the Switch scenario and the Fat Man scenario. Most would agree that pulling the lever to save four people is the right thing to do. Although you are still making the conscious decision to kill someone, you are doing it for the greater good, and you are also doing it indirectly, making it much easier to deal with on mental/psychological basis. In the Fat Man scenario, you would have to directly kill someone by pushing them off of a bridge. In this direct act, it would be morally wrong because you physically pushed someone off a bridge. This would be hard to deal with on psychological level because you know that you murdered someone. However, you can see how the lines between an indirect killing and a direct killing can get muddy--it is hard to argue what makes one scenario morally right and the other one morally wrong. In the case of Jigsaw, any person would tell you that what he is doing is absolutely morally wrong. Although he is indirectly killing his victims, much like in the Switch scenario, he is not doing it for the greater good. He is not planning his sick games as a last ditch effort, but in fact kidnapping people and forcing them to go through these "games." If he really wanted to help these people, he could have done other things first, such as pull them aside and talk to them, or counsel them, instead of putting them in dangerous situations. That's what makes Jigsaw morally wrong while the Switch scenario where we pull the lever, morally right (depending on your opinion).

  2. The direct/indirect distinction make no moral difference in the trolley scenario or for Jigsaw. In Jigsaw's case, he wants to kill people merely for the sake of killing. However, in the the trolley case, a person kills the fatman in order to save others. Although this sacrifice may not be moral, it still has a genuine, underlying tone of good. It would be unfortunate for the fat man to die, especially since he did not expect it. But, one life for the lives of four is a sound utilitarian argument.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Michelle and Adam.

      As I understand your comments, both of you would agree that the direct/indirect distinction *shouldn't* make a moral difference. If an act of killing is wrong, then, from a moral point of view, it doesn't matter whether it is direct killing or indirect killing. Direct and indirect killing are equally wrong. In that case, why do most people appeal to this distinction in explaining the judgments they make in response to trolley cases? Are they simply wrong? Or is there something else going on?

  3. I agree with Michelle and Adam in that whether the act is indirect or direct does not change the fact that the act of killing a person or a group of people is wrong. The main difference, however, is that it seems that when people are asked to make a decision in this scenario, they think of the result that impacts them the most. For example, a person that would pull the lever in that scenario indirectly killed a person, but saved the other four which may "justify" a uncomfortable feeling. However, when one has to directly kill a person by pushing him, a feeling of guilt and distress would be less likely to go away regardless of the fact that five other people were saved. Therefore, I think people link the feeling of distress and guilt as a moral factor, where as indirectly killing one person (through the lever) would have a less guilty feeling that contributes to one's moral thinking.

  4. There is no moral difference in the two cases, only a psychological one. Because pushing the fat man requires direct contact with him, we consider the physical act murder. In the case of the lever, despite an almost identical physical act taking place, because it is indirect, it is not murder. The truth is both are murder, but murder for the salvation of a greater number of people. It's "easier" to pull the lever than push the fat man. I like to think of the scenarios as including someone I care about, say my brother. If it was my brother I had to sacrifice to save the four men by pulling the lever, would it be the same as pushing him, if he were incredibly obese and able to stop a train, to save the same four men? It would be far more difficult to push my brother than to pull the lever, because I'm physically in contact with him attempting to kill him. Despite taking a greater toll on my brain, it is the same sacrifice - my brother for four men. It helps me understand the situation more objectively, and helps with why the morality is the same in both situations.

  5. I also agree that the act of killing is a wrong one, from a moral point of view. This could be indirect or direct. I am one of the few that would be willing to push the fat man in order to save the lives of four. Some people would pull the lever, but not push the fat man which is very puzzling because both have the same outcomes. I also find it wrong how some people decide not to choose. The act of walking away indirectly affects them because they are letting the trolley take its course, and that is morally wrong! Thus, the act of pulling the lever or pushing the fat man would be morally wrong. One cannot be morally correct just because it is a direct action versus and indirect.

  6. Richard Hsu

    I agree with Grace on the idea that there appears to be more “distress and guilt” that underlie the action of pushing the fat man off the bridge in order to save the four or five workers as opposed to pushing a lever in order to redirect the trolley. Moreover, I think another factor that is driving the decision in the two moral dilemmas is the intention. In the case with pushing the lever, one can argue that the intention wasn’t to kill that one person just to save the four. Rather, the intention was to save lives. Similarly, in the second case, the intention wasn’t to kill the fat man. In fact, if pushing him off the bridge stopped the trolley and if he somehow managed to survive, then the intention to save lives was still achieved.

    Also, I think that people cringe on the act of pushing the fat man down the bridge because it requires one to carry out the action physically. That is the true difference between the two acts. If we somehow altered the scenario such as by putting the fat man on top of a trap door and designing a lever to open it so that he falls to stop the trolley, I feel that the number of people who would choose to do this would dramatically increase. In other words, pushing a fat man or pushing a lever is all a matter of mere psychology.


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