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There are two different ways of considering the nature of moral truth and duty. A contingent truth is a truth which is dependent on the way that the world is. For example, “it is snowing” is a contingent truth because it may be snowing (making the statement true), but it also may not be snowing (making the statement untrue). A necessary truth is a truth which is independent of the way the world is. An example of a necessary truth is the statement “it is snowing, or it is not snowing”. This statement is true regardless of whether it is snowing outside. Since this statement is not dependent on the observable world in any way, it is a necessary truth. An empiricist is someone who forms knowledge based on sense experience (class glossary). One such theorist is John Stuart Mill. As an empiricist, who looks towards the world in order to gain knowledge, it stands to reason that Mill would accept the view that moral truths are contingent. A rationalist is someone who believes that reason, not observation, is the primary source of knowledge (class glossary). Immanuel Kant is one such theorist. As Kant is a rationalist, it stands to reason that he would have necessary truths because they are independent of the physical world, purely from reason. In this essay, I will apply these views to a hypothetical trolley situations, and share my own view on the trolley situations.
In the following sections, I will reference two versions of a trolley problem. Version one: there is a train coming towards five workers on a track. There is a lever, which, if you pull it, will divert the train towards a track with one worker. In either option, the train will inevitably kill all the workers on the track that it is on. Version two: there is a train coming towards five workers on a track. You are on a bridge over the track with a large person. If you push the person off the bridge onto the track below, the person will die, but their body will stop the train, saving the five. If you do not push the person, the five on the track will die.
As Mill would view moral duty and truth as contingent, he would agree that what is normally perceived as an immoral act may become moral in certain situations when it brings about the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. This is because, for Mill, moral duty is dependent on the observable world. Thus, in the first trolley problem, he would pull the lever to save four lives. In the second trolley problem, he would push the large person off the bridge to save four lives. In accordance with the utilitarian perspective, Mill would be responsible for bringing the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people, even if that involves manipulating others.
As Kant would view moral duty as dependent on necessary truths, he would not agree that what is normally perceived as an immoral act may become moral in certain situations, even when it brings about the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. This is because, for Kant, moral duty is independent of the observable world. Thus, in the first trolley problem, he would not pull the lever to save four lives. In the second trolley problem, he would not push the large person off the bridge to save four lives. In accordance with the deontological perspective, Kant would not be directly responsible for the well-being of others.
I agree with Mill’s utilitarian view of the trolley problem. I think it would be best to sacrifice one person in order to save the others, as this would bring about the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Logically, I can’t find any significant different between the two trolley situations (pushing the person vs. pulling the lever is not a morally relevant difference, for me). This being said, I have no idea how I would respond in the moment.
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