Philosophers usually test these theories of normative ethics against hypothetical cases that are designed to elicit certain moral judgments. For example, Trolley scenarios are used by philosophers to test versions of utilitarianism. One of the scenarios is the Switch scenario:
Switch. A runaway trolley is going to kill four people working on the tracks. You can flip a switch that will divert the trolley away from the four workers. Unfortunately, the trolley will be diverted onto a track where one person is working and that person will be killed. Should you flip the switch and kill the one person or should you let the trolley kill the four?For most people, it seems that the right thing to do in the Switch scenario is to flip the switch, i.e., sacrifice one person to save four. On the other hand, in the Fat Man scenario, most people judge that it is wrong to push the fat man off the bridge:
Fat Man. A runaway trolley is going to kill four people working on the tracks. You can stop the trolley by pushing a fat man off a bridge onto the tracks. The man is fat enough to stop the runaway trolley. Should you push the fat man off the bridge and kill one person to save four?For most people, it seems that pushing the fat man is not the right thing to do in the Fat Man scenario. This judgment is then taken as evidence against (act-)utilitarianism, for according to this theory "sacrificing one person to save four" is always a good moral reason.
Now, if philosophers are testing theories of normative ethics against their (and other people's) judgments about right and wrong, then what are those theories for? Presumably, the theories are supposed to tell us what is right and wrong conduct. But if we go with our own judgments when they conflict with what our theories say, then why bother with the theories at all? Let's just cut the middleman and go straight to the source, which is, in this case, our own judgments about right and wrong.
On the other hand, if we want to keep our theories of normative ethics, then we have to acknowledge that testing them against our own moral judgments may not be the best way to test our theories. To sum up:
- In trying to figure out right and wrong conduct, we can trust our theories of normative ethics or our own moral judgments.
- If we trust our theories of normative ethics, then our own moral judgments are redundant.
- If we trust our own moral judgments, then our theories of normative ethics are redundant.
- Therefore, either our moral judgments are redundant or our theories of normative ethics are redundant.