Michael Sandel – Harvard Professor Teaching Justice

February 17, 2010
Michael SandelTwo summers ago my wife and I attended the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival with my mother. One of the many great take a ways was a keynote dialogue with Michael Sandel in typical and great Socratic fashion. He opened with the well know Trolley Dilemma.
“A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by the mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to flip the switch. According to simple utilitarianism, flipping the switch would be not only permissible, but, morally speaking, the better option (the other option being no action at all).


While simple utilitarian calculus seeks to justify this course of action, some non-utilitarians may also accept the view. Often the problem is stated with a mad philosopher initiating the dilemma. Opponents might assert that, since moral wrongs are already in place in the situation, flipping the switch constitutes a participation in the moral wrong, making one partially responsible for the death when otherwise the mad philosopher would be the sole culprit. Additionally, opponents may point to the incommensurability of human lives. It might also be justifiable to consider that simply being present in this situation and being able to influence its outcome constitutes an obligation to participate. If this were the case, then deciding to do nothing would be considered an immoral act. Some critics argue that the actual fact of producing an all inclusive moral theory, capable of addressing with clarity such staged or otherwise very real dilemmas, might not be attainable after all.


As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Michael SandelResistance to this course of action seems strong; most people who approved of sacrificing one to save five in the first case do not approve in the second sort of case. This has led to attempts to find a relevant moral distinction between the two cases. One clear distinction is that in the first case, one does not intend harm towards anyone – harming the one is just a side-effect of switching the trolley away from the five. However, in the second case, harming the one is an integral part of the plan to save the five.” – Wikipedia

What Michael Sandel is teaching us is the difference between Consequential Morality and Categorical Morality Consequential Morality is when the consequences of actions, makingmorality inseparable from context. i.e. when we are given certain events our circumstances can change how we act – the trolley driver diverting the train to kill one to save five, verses Catagorical Morality is always described as principally being a function of how an act impacts the affected i.e. in the trolley dilemma killing 1 to save 5 is wrong.

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