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The Trolley Method of Moral Philosophy

30 January 2012


The hypothetical scenarios generally known as trolley problems have become widespread in recent moral philosophy. They invariably require an agent to choose one of a strictly limited number of options, all of them bad. Although they don’t always involve trolleys / trams, and are used to make a wide variety of points, what makes it justified to speak of a distinctive “trolley method” is the characteristic assumption that the intuitive reactions that all these artificial situations elicit constitute an appropriate guide to real-life moral reasoning. I dispute this assumption by arguing that trolley cases inevitably constrain the supposed rescuers into behaving in ways that clearly deviate from psychologically healthy, and morally defensible, human behavior. Through this focus on a generally overlooked aspect of trolley theorizing – namely, the highly impoverished role invariably allotted to the would-be rescuer in these scenarios – I aim to challenge the complacent twin assumptions of advocates of the trolley method that this approach to moral reasoning has practical value, and is in any case innocuous. Neither assumption is true.


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