The Original Trolley and the Fat Man Case

Published: 2022-12-13
The Original Trolley and the Fat Man Case
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Culture Health and Social Care Human resources
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1288 words
11 min read

Sometimes a good thing can be done and result to a morally wrong consequence; just like in the trolley problem wherein the first scenario, the driver has to choose between saving the five workmen or the one workman. In the second scenario, one has to determine whether to sacrifice the life of the fat man to save the five workmen or spare the fat man and let the five workmen die. Whichever decision one makes it will lead to sparing of someone's' life, but at the same time another life will be sacrificed. The two scenarios have been made to go in pairs since in each pair one is forced to either save one person or five people, and the main issue lies in which action one will take to do so (Thompson, 1994). Discussed below is what would be the right action in the two cases according to Kant, what would make the fat man's case different from the original trolley case and also an explanation of Kant's first two formulations of the categorical imperative.

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The Right Actions in the two Cases according to Kant

According to Kant's deontology, using the universal law to solve both of the scenarios would be the right action to take (O'Neill, 1993). For instance; in the first scenario of the original trolley problem, the law holds that a rational being is an end to itself. Therefore, the right action to take would be to save the five workmen from been hit by the trolley and let the one workman die since by failing to act the driver would be using the group of the five men as an end. Relatively, one would just be letting the actions which are already meant to happen to take their course to save the maximum lives to get the greater good.

As for the second scenario of the fat man's case one is forced to make the same decision again as to whether to save the fat man and let the five workmen die and vice versa. The major problem is by choosing to sacrifice the fat man life for the five; one would have treated the rational being as the means to an end. Therefore, the best action to take would be to let the five workmen die and save the fat man's life since by doing so one would have preserved the law according to Kant.

Why the Fat Man Case is Different from the Original Trolley Case

The significant difference between the Fat Man case and the Original Trolley case is that it is about intending harm vs. foreseeing harm. This is because the fat man case is more about one planning to harm or sacrifice the fat man for saving the five workmen (O'Neill,1993) Which means that; it is necessary for one to use the fat man as the primary tool to protect the five workmen meaning that the fat man will have to die. This differentiates this case from the original trolley case in that as for the trolley case; one does not have any intention of causing harm but rather the harm is just foreseeing as an unintended side effect or unfortunate. It is morally wrong for one to intentionally cause harm to an individual as a means to the end as compared to merely foreseeing harm which is unintentional.

Kant's First Two Formulations of Categorical Imperative

Kant's first two formulations of categorical imperative are;

"Act only according to that maximum whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (O'Neill,1993).

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your person or the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means"(O'Neill,1993).

For an individual to be able to understand the two formulations, he or she should understand what maxim is. Kant argues that maxim is a rule or a principle that a person uses when trying to decide on how to act. Both rational and morality demands apply to the maxim motivating actions.

The first formulation: It is the formula of universal law; it states that an individual should only act on a maxim the agent is ready to support as the universal law and additionally, the law should not conflict itself (Categorical).This means that the maxim or rule should and cannot apply to every person and in case it ends up contradicting itself in any particular situation it should therefore not be acted upon by any person. However, if the rule or maxim is not contradicting itself and it is rational, the action can or should be taken n some cases. Kant separated it to the duty of acting maxim into both the perfect and imperfect duty. The perfect duty means acting only in the maxim that does not result in any logical contradictions when universalized while the imperfect duty means acting only on that maxim the agent is ready to universalize. An individual cannot create a maxim for himself or herself that he or she cannot apply to any other person (O'Neill,1993).

The second formulation: The formula of an end to itself; It holds that one should see other people or the "rational beings" and oneself as an end but not as a means. It is contradictory of the ends which justifies the means theory. In this second formulation, the means have been considered an end, and this means that it is impossible for the means to justify the end. For instance, if it is deemed to be wrong to lie, then lying should not be accepted whether the lie results to good or bad results because it will mean that the lie told was the end itself; it was a morally wrong action which is taken. This is clear that an individual should apply all the maxim to other the same way he or she does to himself or herself to avoid contradictory maxim (O'Neill,1993)

Both formulations have a strong and a weak point, the strong point of the first formulation is that it is universal because it is apparent that one should apply the same laws and rules to others as he or she does to himself or herself. This is also applicable to the second formulation as well; if other people are not treated as a means to an end, then they should also have the same freedom as I do. The weakness is that it is always challenging to judge any action which stands alone, for instance; although it is wrong to kill anyone, when we look at in terms of self-defense it appears necessary. However, according to the categorical formulation, it is considered wrong to murder despite their intentions whether good or bad (O'Neil,1993)> But what if that is the only option one can take to save oneself as well as others, can we consider it as morally wrong? Then what would be the maximum act in this scenario? This can lead to very many contradictions.

The first formulation must exist for the second formulation to be true; the first formulation holds that the maxim should not contradict itself and it should be universally. AS for the second formulation, one should demand an end to others just the same way he or she does to himself or herself. Therefore, if the first formulation which requires uniformity and conformity turns out to be untrue, the second formulation which proposes universality between all individuals will be incorrect as well. This clearly shows that the two formulations are supposed to work hand in hand to establish the standard for moral duty.


O'Neill, O. (1993). Kantian ethics. A companion to ethics, 29, 175-85.Thomson, J. J. (1984). The trolley problem. Yale LJ, 94, 1395.

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