Wednesday, October 13, 2010

St. Thomas Aquinas and Mencius Were Right

Dave Edmonds on "the trolley problem" — Matters of life and death. "The core problem involves two thought experiments—call the first 'Spur' and the second 'Fat Man,'" the author explains:
    In Spur, an out-of-control trolley—or train—is hurtling towards five people on the track, who face certain death. You are nearby and, by turning a switch, could send the trolley onto a spur and save their lives. But one man is chained to the spur and would be killed if the trolley is diverted. Should you flick the switch?

    In Fat Man, the same trolley is about to kill five people. This time, you are on a footbridge overlooking the track, next to a fat man. (The Fat Man is now sometimes described as a large gentleman. But fat or large, the fact of his corpulence is essential.) If you were to push him off the bridge onto the track his bulk would stop the trolley and save the lives of those five people—but kill him. Do you push him?

    Study after study has shown that people will sacrifice the spur man but not the fat man. Yet in both cases, one person is killed to save five others. What, then, is the relevant ethical distinction between them? This question has spawned a thriving academic mini-industry, called trolleyology.
The article suggests "that the trolley problem lends weight to a doctrine first established in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas," namely, "the doctrine of double effect, a cornerstone not just of Catholic ethics, but of common-sense morality too." Mr. Edmonds explains:
    Crudely put, the doctrine allows you to perform an act that has some bad consequences, if on balance the act is good, and if the bad effects are unintended.

    Applying the doctrine to the trolley problem, it’s been argued that in the first scenario, there is no intention to kill the man on the spur. If you diverted the train but spur man miraculously escaped, you would be delighted. But in the second scenario, you intend the death of the fat man. If he were to bounce off the track and flee out of the trolley’s path, this would thwart your aim, because the five people would still be killed. You need the chubby projectile to be hit by the trolley.
The article takes us to a group of "West Point cadets tak[ing] a compulsory course on philosophy and 'just war' theory which includes the trolley problem" who rightly suggest that "the two scenarios represent the distinction between targeting a military installation knowing that civilians will be killed, and deliberately killing civilians. It’s the difference, they say, between how the US and how al Qaeda wage war." [Of course, that did not apply to the Anglo-American "strategic bombing" of WWII, when "deliberately killing civilians" was the strategic goal.]

Coming to mind is Mencius, who, as you know, "asserted the innate goodness of the individual." The fact that "[s]tudy after study has shown that people will sacrifice the spur man but not the fat man" suggests our innate moral nature. The Argument from Conscience, "one of the only two arguments for the existence of God alluded to in Scripture" as Peter Kreeft informs us, comes to mind.

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Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.