​​Being a complete dilettante in the field of philosophy I will accept any warranted smackdown with grace.

It is my understanding that moral philosophers are actively trying to resolve the following apparent asymmetry in moral reasoning. Given the classic trolley problem where the rails fork with one person versus five people tied down, it's a no-brainer to sacrifice the one to spare the five. However, in the variant where there is only one branch and the only way to save the five is to push a fat man onto the rails, people display a great deal more reticence. Variants on this problem include proposing to sacrifice one healthy man so that his organs can be used to save 10 dying people -- and again observing a reluctance to commit this act of apparent utilitarianism.

To me the answer is obvious and I'm wondering if I'm missing something (either in the literature or in the argument itself). First I distinguish all people as either being in "the predicament" or outside of it. People outside of the predicament can just walk away -- as the healthy man from the 10 dying people or the fat man from the five people tied to the rails. I claim that the difficulty in the examples arises from forcibly making someone outside of the predicament a party to the predicament. I propose the following universal moral principle: It is always wrong to make someone outside the predicament an unwilling party to the predicament. It appears to me that this principle successfully resolves the moral asymmetry.

Questions: (1) has such a principle been proposed in the literature? (2) Does it indeed resolve the problem? (3) Does it create new ones? (4) Are there interesting border cases?

  • Some might argue that "we are all in the same boat"...
    – christo183
    Jun 12, 2019 at 9:09
  • 1
    Sorry, I don't follow?..
    – Aryeh
    Jun 12, 2019 at 9:32
  • 1
    To be 100% fair in attributions, I did encounter the concept of "the predicament" here posttenuretourettes.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/drown-the-fat-man
    – Aryeh
    Jun 12, 2019 at 9:46
  • 1
    How to decide who are in the predicament may not always be as clear as a discrete decision: e.g. what if it is 10 fat men and 20 others on the rails, and 5 of the fat men has a family member on the tracks? - But to be fair your observation that people are reluctant to bring others into jeopardy, does seem to reveal something of the psychology of such a situation.
    – christo183
    Jun 12, 2019 at 12:15
  • 2
    According to empirical studies, the reticence displayed has nothing to do with moral reasoning, and simply reflects people's instinctive emotional aversion to "getting their hands dirty" in pushing vs turning the switch. The standard (fabricated) rationalization after the fact is called the doctrine of double effect, a.k.a. the means/side-effect distinction. Just like your predicament/non-predicament many find it to be a distinction without a difference.
    – Conifold
    Jun 12, 2019 at 18:26

1 Answer 1


In the original scenario one or more deaths will (almost certainly) occur with or without your intervention. You are presented - confronted - with a situation you have not brought about and with alternatives (possibilities of action) which are 'given'. It does not seem to me to make any moral difference whether one is 'outside the predicament' in the sense of being presented with it, without having brought it about, or 'inside' it by having brought it about. Take a parallel: if a child is drowning and I can swim, is it morally right just to walk away because I am 'outside the child's predicament' since I did not create the situation in which the child is drowning ?

This is not to say that it is morally mandatory to act for another's benefit whenever I can prevent harm. But walking away because I did not cause the relevant situation doesn't strike me as a valid excuse in general.

This is my main answer but I consider the trolley problem further.

Your choice of alternative between five and one is abstract; it does not take into account the characteristics of the individuals who are in this bad situation. Bentham's 'one to count for one, nobody for more than one' is a defensible ground for decision-making : all else equal it is preferable for one to die rather than five. (I say 'defensible'; I do not venture beyond this. It may be defensible but defeasable.)

Introduce the fat man, and the moral description of the situation changes. It is no longer given but reconstructed by you. You bring in a third possibility, that of saving six people by sacrificing the fat man's life - he falls on to the track and the trolley, halted, does not reach any of the original victims.

Is the man's fatness a morally relevant characteristic ? Say, does his bulk make it more likely that his body will stop the trolley or is he a walking example of the vice of gluttony? As described the situation is silent on this.

  • Amusingly, that blog post I linked also touches upon the drowning child scenario -- with a somewhat contrarian take. I'd be curious to get your input on that take.
    – Aryeh
    Jun 12, 2019 at 13:44
  • I suppose it follows from my inside/outside principle that no, we cannot morally obligate a bystander (outside the predicament of the drowning child) to become a party to the predicament, at some (even minimal) cost to himself. I'm going to go ahead and bite the bullet on that one.
    – Aryeh
    Jun 12, 2019 at 13:46

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .