Listening to Justice with Michael Sandel, he talks about the trolley problem. In the first case he talks about the classic problem where you are on a tram, and you can steer it towards either a group of five people, or one single person.
The other case is "the fat man" case, where you have the option of either seeing five people being killed by the tram, or pushing a fat man over the bridge, killing him but stopping the tram and saving the other five.

On the question on why people choose killing the one person in the first case, but in the second one they would rather see five people be killed, Professor Sandel answers that "we do not want to get out hands dirty".

My question is; why is it passivity is considered a moral better choice? Yes, you did not kill that person, and do not have blood on your hands, but you had the choice to save five people. Are not their blood on your hands as well?

Ps: I am a beginner at this, so please be understanding in that I might not be asking the most precise questions.

2 Answers 2


It is not universally preferable. Some thinkers, often following Nietzsche, encourage having as much influence as you are able to tolerate.

(The more evolved in this crowd soften that to 'as you and the system are able to tolerate honorably'. Neitzche wrote boldly about the 'value of crime' and the 'power of the lie', but that is not how he lived. In reality, he considered crime 'in poor taste' and lying a waste of everyone's time. We all realize that social norms have value.)

He/they would blame the preference for passivity on our culture's choice of 'slave morality', influenced by Christianity and similar threads in other religions, and by the complexity of our modern cultures. We exonerate innocent victims of circumstance, instead of taking the older path of demanding choice as a matter of honor, because 1) we are culturally invested in the 'magic' of the paradox of strength through weakness and 2) we are also used to being in situations where we lack a significant part of the necessary information.

So we can see ourselves as innocent bystanders, forced unwillingly into the situation we are not ready for, and as wise agents avoiding acting on a potential misunderstanding. That gives us a defensible ethical position. But in the end, if we go down that path too consistently, we are drawn into the position of lionizing victimhood, which is ultimately bad for everyone, since victimhood is not a productive value, and actively produces weaknesses and attendant social costs that need not exist.

That set of folks would kill the fat man if this were a split-second decision. But from an even more powerful position, they would try to convince the fat man to do himself in.

Respecting autonomy is always a more powerful position, because, you have deployed not only 'power over' the situation, but 'power with' those with more direct power (to borrow terms from Starhawk). In this case, if you get your way, you have made the decision about the outcome, but have also influenced the fat man himself directly toward heroism.

If you don't get your way, you have taken the position with the higher potential return-on-investment, though also with the greater risk. The more audacious proposal is better because taking responsibility and facing risk has a positive value, which partially offsets the potential greater likelihood of success in a more calculated approach.

  • Thank you for taking the time to give a detailed reply to my question. I have read some Nietzsche, but I did not think of connecting his philosophies to this problem. I am interested in learning more of what you write of in your last two paragraphs, do you have any suggestions to literature where I can start?
    – Program
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:16
  • ... and apparently I can only accept one answer, even though both gave me much insight in finding an answer to my question.
    – Program
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:18
  • Strangely, people who follow Nietzsche directly tend to be religionists rather than philosophers. I would point you at Starhawk's "Truth or Dare" and at the 'Thelematic' writings of Alistair Crowley. But you have to bear in mind that these folks are religionists...
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:19
  • It does not really matter, the 'accept vote' is only one-and-one-half votes. I the answer is really good, enough other people will vote for it to offset that possibly debatable half-vote.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:20
  • I will have that in mind when I read them, and if you think of anything else please give me a hint.
    – Program
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:22

I think a simple gist might be that you are not responsible for the concatenation of circumstances which led to the trolley dilemma.

Even though people may come to harm owing to your inaction, this is also "equally" owing to the inaction of any other observer... Whereas you will be directly responsible for any harm you cause through your actions.

Passively permitting people to die through inaction is certainly callous, and may in fact amount to criminal negligence. But actively causing death is plainly murderous, regardless of good intentions or consequences.

  • Actually that is a very good answer. But does this hold up in any situation? What if there were 100 people risking to be killed. You could pat yourself on the shoulder saying that you did not directly murder someone, but you had the choice to save them, and you choose not to, because your own moral consciousness(right word?) is more important?
    – Program
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 16:34
  • @Program: Are you really trying to say that it would be morally better to actively kill someone (having full responsibility) than to behave passively if you can't see any moral decision available in a situation you are in no way responsible for? Let it be thousands of people, I would never take the choice to kill anyone actively as long as the only alternative was killing even more people actively.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:18
  • @Philip I am exploring an area of morality that seems gray to me at the moment, and to learn I have to ask questions, whether they be provocative or not. I am not saying anything. If you are provoking for a shouting match, go somewhere else. Thank you.
    – Program
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:46
  • @PhilipKlöcking Don't seem so shocked. It is unfair to an acknowledged newcomer. Many ethicists choose a middle ground here. Open questions like 'just' wars, capital punishment (e.g. of a serial killer), etc are really just variations on this version of the trolley problem.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 18:01
  • @Program: Just to clarify - I didn't want to be offensive. Just to put your scenario into other wording in order to provoke the development of a moral sensitivity for these questions ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 19:15

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