The ‘trolley Problem’: Utilitarianism Vs Deontology

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About this sample


Words: 718 |

Pages: 2|

4 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Words: 718|Pages: 2|4 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

At what point does it become ethically sanctioned to take an innocent person’s life? To what extent do people’s moral institutions compose their apprehension of what is right or wrong? This paper will evaluate how the “trolley problem” is assessed by utilitarian and deontological philosophical approaches on morality and will conclude on the correct position. This proposal raises controversial ideas regarding what constitutes morality, and how each individual evaluates the situation and the consequences to everyday dilemmas. The first paragraph explains the trolley problem alongside how deontology and utilitarianism relate to the dilemma. Moreover, after a critical analysis of the theories’ approaches, I will discuss which solution would result in the best outcome. I will argue in concordance with the utilitarian perspective, as it creates happiness for the greatest amount of people advancing towards general good.

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Philippa Foot (1920-2010) presented the Trolley Problem dilemma situation this way, “the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed” (Wolff, 14). According to utilitarian moral theories, the ethical approach would be for the driver to steer towards the track with one man to spare the lives of five pursuing “the course of action that creates the greatest total of happiness over unhappiness.” To support his argument, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) stated “each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons” (Mill, 1961/2001, pp. 35-36), in other words, in the event that there is where there can be more than one arrangement, the most good or the best activity would be the one that creates more overall happiness for the best measure when looking at the greater good. Contrary, deontological or duty-based theories define the right action as a set of moral rules that set limits to what we may do, regarding it would be fair and equal for all to let the trolley run its course towards the track with five people. And as stated by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher that established deontology “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature”, in other words, it would not be moral to intervene in the situation, letting five people die is more morally correct than interrupting and killing the individual, because the moment we apply Kant categorical imperative comes in the moral system draws the blame of the killing on you, “actions are wrong if they break the moral rule”.

Although both theories have strong and convincing arguments, after critically assessing the unique situation and possible outcomes, I personally believe that by making use of a utilitarianism perspective mindset is the best option in the trolley dilemma, as saving the most lives creates the greatest good. Deontological perspective could argue that this is not the “right action”, yet in my personal moral institution achieving the greater good is more important than sacrificing one’s integrity and doing what Kant would determine as the “wrong thing.” Being an example of consequentialism, utilitarianism also “judges the rightness or wrongness of actions based on their consequences”, if the consequences are better when approaching the problem by using utilitarianism then doesn’t that make it the right perspective? Furthermore, as E. F. Carritt (2876-1964) explains in his book when looking through a utilitarian perspective “we are justified in inflicting pain always and only to prevent worse pain or bring about greater happiness”, thus if when subtracted the good outnumbers the pain induced, then the punishment would be purely preventive of excessive unwanted pain, pursuing the greater course of action, leading to overall happiness. Finally, Wolff reflects upon the following critic’s statement: “in principle, utilitarianism could permit gross injustice if it advances the general good”.

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Conclusively, we all have different moral intuitions that at times like these we must abandon to create the greater good. Although Kant’s proposition of deontology is morally correct, it is unethical when having Mill’s utilitarianism moral theory where the pain being inflicted in the minority is justified by the bringing about greater happiness, outnumbering the wrongful actions therefore, becoming the rightful action, maximizing the good and happiness of the greater group.  

Works Cited

  1. Wolff, R. P. (Ed.). (2016). The philosophy of the trolley: Moral foundations and applications. Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Foot, P. (1967). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Oxford Review, 5(5), 5-15.
  3. Mill, J. S. (2001). Utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government (pp. 35-54). Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1863)
  4. Kant, I. (1997). Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1785)
  5. Carritt, E. F. (1947). Morals and politics. Oxford University Press.
  6. Thomson, J. J. (1985). The trolley problem. Yale Law Journal, 94(6), 1395-1415.
  7. Driver, J. (2012). The trolley problem. In Ethics: The Fundamentals (pp. 106-116). Wiley-Blackwell.
  8. Cummiskey, D. (1990). Kantian consequentialism. Ethics, 100(3), 468-496.
  9. Hooker, B. (2013). Rule consequentialism. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition). Retrieved from
  10. Singer, P. (1993). Practical ethics. Cambridge University Press.
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The ‘Trolley Problem’: Utilitarianism Vs Deontology. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
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