Philippa Foot invented the scenario described as the trolley problem. In it there is a runaway trolley that will kill five innocent people. You, a bystander, have the ability to divert the trolley so that just one innocent person is killed instead.
In another version of the problem there is a fat man looking at a runaway trolley from a bridge. If you push him off the bridge he will get wedged under the wheels and bring the trolley to a halt, saving the five people.
Some philosophers delight in the moral confusion generated by the different moral intuitions people exhibit concerning the two cases. People often countenance the lever-pulling but demur from the rightness of pushing the fat man. It is commonly pointed out that the two cases are functionally the same, but that pushing the fat man is more visceral and less abstract, leading to the different moral choices.
The answer should be easy. Do not pull the lever and do not push the fat man. Murdering innocent people is wrong and committing immoral actions cannot be justified by being useful.
If the trolley problem scenario is changed to one where terrorists have five hostages, then the moral truth may be more apparent. The terrorists appear on Youtube or television and say that if Richard Cocks kills one of his sisters, the five hostages will be spared. If Richard Cocks complied, the ironic situation would be that Richard Cocks would be a murderer and the terrorists would not.
It is not morally permissible to kill innocent people no matter how handy it might be to get rid of someone. The trolley problem is trying to get people to engage in sacrificial conduct. Again, imagine the terrorist situation just described except this time the terrorists say that if Richard Cocks does not commit suicide, the five hostages will be killed. Am I morally obliged to kill myself? No.
Interestingly, in another scenario associated with utilitarianism, a doctor can save five people if he kills an innocent person who happens to be a perfect organ donor for the five others – all of whom are terminally ill but can be saved by a transplant. Each ill patient would receive a different organ from the healthy, innocent victim. The moral situation is exactly the same as the trolley problem, but in the doctor and patient scenario most people think it perfectly clear that murdering the innocent person is wrong.
Murdering the innocent victim and siding with the mob (the many) is to scapegoat. Killing innocent victims is frequently useful. It bonds people together in mutual hatred against the victim, temporarily halting any animosity that may have occurred within the mob. In scapegoating as described by René Girard, the victim is always innocent. He is always innocent of what he is accused, namely entirely destroying the social fabric and single-handedly inducing neighbor to murder neighbor. Mimetic desire leads to conflict and in situations of chaos induced, for instance, by war, famine, plague, drought and flood, the normal taboos, prohibitions, and laws are not sufficient to suppress the violence inherent in rivalrous relationships.
To kill the innocent victim is to sacrifice the scapegoat – the age-old method of solving human conflict. The victim cannot complain because he is dead, so the community never has to face the reality of what they have done. His friends and relatives, if he has any, will remain silent too because they will fear being killed too and/or, because of mimesis, they may come to share the opinion of the mob that the victim deserved it. Even the victim can come to believe that he deserves to die. If enough people tell someone how rotten he is, he may come to accept it. Our self-image is largely the product of how other people respond to us, after all.
Some of the moral confusion over the trolley problem may be generated by the moral theory of utilitarianism. By stating that we should choose the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, utilitarianism sides with the mob against the victim. Even when utilitarians decide to spare the victim it is because killing the victim would not benefit the mob because, for instance, it would make people afraid of going to the doctor thereby harming people’s health. That is the wrong answer and utilitarianism is actually conceptually incapable of recognizing that murdering innocent victims is morally wrong. People completely unversed in the theory immediately recognize the sacrificial implications – utilitarianism just being scapegoating given a formal description and sold as promoting happiness.
However, some students who are unaware of utilitarianism, still think pulling the lever might be right. In one case, this was because the bystander was imagined to be someone who was standing idly by while witnessing an immoral event – as though letting the five people die in the trolley problem scenario were similar to not intervening when they were being beaten by an angry mob.
Not to murder an innocent person is not the same as callousness. Quite the reverse.
A willingness to pull the lever is just a sign that sacrificial behavior – scapegoating – lies close to the surface for humanity. Utilitarianism is evil, not because it introduces scapegoating for the first time, but because it countenances scapegoating and encourages it under the guise of a supposedly rational “moral” theory.