If you consider the trolley problem, most people would pull the lever to kill one to save the five. If however, to save the five, you need to push a fat man onto the tracks to stop the trolley, this seems more problematic.

I wonder if one interpretation of this is that the fat man could be considered to be more innocent than the five on the track, because he is uninvolved.

  • 1
    Thomson made something like such an argument:"we are not entitled to turn the trolley onto a stranger. Doing so would be like stealing someone’s wallet to give to charity", see SEP, Doing vs. Allowing Harm. But, like other attempted rationalizations, it faces the problem that the most plausible explanation of people's reactions is that they turn on emotional responses and not on any ethically relevant differences.
    – Conifold
    Aug 12, 2020 at 4:35
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    In my opinion, the "fat man pushed in front of trolley" scenario is a bad example because it just wouldn't actually work. I don't care how fat someone is, they aren't likely to stop a runaway trolley just with their body. It's possible they could get under the wheels and derail it, but most likely the trolley would just ram them out of the way. So common sense says it's immoral to kill the fat person to save 5, because it wouldn't actually save the 5.
    – causative
    Mar 30, 2021 at 6:06
  • The closest real analogue to the 'act to kill one but save five' was actually performed youtu.be/1sl5KJ69qiA Personally, I can't help but wonder how much it is about local culture, rather than reasoning. The trolley version involves many assumptions about how well informed the decider is, and lived common parallels to this kind of decision show these kind of decisions are easily nudged, making firm conclusions dubious
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 31, 2021 at 23:38

3 Answers 3


A baseline for general social living is that it would be correct for anyone to participate in any plan with some degree of potential for success to save everyone in both cases, as long as it doesn’t put the participants in danger themselves. Non-participation is not a neutral position with respect to such planning - if someone came to you for help and asked you to take part, it’s not an excusing reason to say “it’s nothing to do with me!”

Additionally, involvement isn’t sufficient for moral culpability. The large person can still absolved of any judgement for not jumping in front of the trolley while being involved - even if you’d alerted them to the situation and asked them kindly to roll off the edge to block the trolley, they’d be considered innocent for refusing because intervention requires guaranteed death, and it’s not right to demand martyrdom. Moreover, they’ve not been reasonably informed of the situation, so even if they could have helped, we can’t expect them to have done so as a general matter of course.

If however a bystander could help in some other way that didn’t require personal sacrifice, and chose not to after having been clearly asked, they would not be deemed innocent by virtue of mere non-participation. If the plan presented was a good one, and their support would be reasonably expected to have helped, then declining is ethically negligent, and there is a reasonable case for holding them partially responsible for a negative outcome.


Biblically, this has to do with mankind's innate knowledge of the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." You cannot intentionally kill an innocent person even to save others. (It would be okay and honorable to sacrifice your own life to save others, John 15:13.)

  • That's not what the 6th commandment says: it says "Do not murder." Lots of other Jewish laws require executions! And Exodus 22:2 appears to allow for a defence of self-defence in certain situations: "If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed." Nov 22, 2022 at 3:01
  • Yes, but intentionally killing an innocent person is quite different than capital punishment, self defense, or accidental manslaughter. Nov 22, 2022 at 14:27

Another way of stating this is asking whether the five on track have more guilt than the man who passes by. I'd ask you how can you make sense of the people on track having more guilt for being passively and unwillingly involved in the issue.

This seems to dismiss the point.

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