If I understand correctly, according to utilitarianism, in the trolley problem, the ethical action is to pull the lever, causing one person to die and saving five.

Is there a variant of utilitarianism that judges if an action (but not inaction) is the ethical choice by looking only at the bad consequences, without looking at the good ones?

For example, the bad consequences of pulling the lever would be that one person dies, so it would be unethical to pull the lever, and therefore the ethical action to do nothing at all (no matter the consequences of doing nothing).

This doesn't seem to be negative utilitarianism, as that seems to only minimize negative suffering, without making a difference between actions and inactions.

To avoid extreme examples (for example, not pulling the lever kills 100 people, pulling it only slightly hurts someone), it could be modified to say that good actions are those where bad consequences are much less than good consequences. Is there a name for this theory as well?

  • 1
    The distinction between action and inaction is typically maintained by non-consequentialists and denied by consequentialists, utilitarians in particular, see Doing vs. Allowing Harm. If morality is judged on consequences alone, the inaction is just the action of not acting, there is no basis upon which to tell them apart. So no, there is no such variant.
    – Conifold
    Oct 9 '19 at 3:51
  • If I suddenly disappeared right before I could make a choice, then the trolley would not switch tracks, so that's the inaction... Based on this ethical theory, it's unethical to have caused harm (someone was hurt, and wouldn't have been hurt if you just stood still and done nothing).
    – user42606
    Oct 9 '19 at 3:58
  • Ethics is about guiding behavior. Any ethical theory, utilitarianism included, only applies when a decision is involved, when it is within one's power to act, or not act. When one "suddenly disappears", or is hit upon the head and left on the tracks by a hurricane, there is no behavior to guide, ethics is simply moot.
    – Conifold
    Oct 9 '19 at 4:15
  • That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that the inaction is not doing anything (literally standing still), such that the outcome will be what would have happened if I hadn't noticed the trolley and intervened by killing a person who wasn't going to die.
    – user42606
    Oct 9 '19 at 4:19
  • 1
    The notion of what is a negative outcome and what is a neutral one is not solvable, either. Numbers exist on scales with midpoints, but there is no natural, absolute zero or unit of measure. The zero position that separates mere existence from suffering depends on notions of human nature. Hunger is suffering. Is envy suffering? Is boredom? Or are those neutral effects of human nature in the presence of others having things or opportunities -- something humans inflict upon themselves? Then since we all do actively choose to have things are you causing their suffering? Or is it just there?
    – user9166
    Oct 9 '19 at 13:47

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