There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead on the tracks there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are some distance off the tracks on a footbridge standing next to a very large or fat man; we will call him the portly fella. You can push the man off the bridge, and his body will fall onto the tracks and stop the trolley from killing the five people, but will kill the portly fella.
You have two options: (1) Do nothing and let the trolley kill the five people. 2) Push the man onto the tracks, where it is likely to kill the one person. What would you do in this situation? Push the portly fella, or just watch as the five people on the tracks reach their own demise. It’s an extremely tough dilemma that has been discussed for nearly 50 years with no clear answer. Using Plato’s Five Dialogues and Immanuel Kant’s good will and categorical imperative, this paper will determine that it is indeed not virtuous and immoral to push the portly fella over the edge of bridge and onto the tracks.
In Plato’s Five Dialogues, Plato documents the prosecution and execution of Socrates for the charges of corrupting the youth and believing and teaching falsities about the gods. Socrates was also accused of many informal charges, which include making the weaker argument appear stronger and being a sophist. Sophists are paid teachers of philosophy and rhetoric in ancient Greece, associated in popular thought with moral skepticism and specious reasoning who use rhetoric in public settings to make arguments seem stronger than they are.
Throughout the Five Dialogues, Plato speaks through Socrates to teach the reader about piety and virtue. In the book Euthyphro, they establish that whatever piety is, pious actions are loved by the gods because the actions are pious. However, a universal definition of piety was difficult to decide because the gods were said to frequently disagree with one another. In the Dialogue, Euthyphro suggests that holiness includes the persecution of religious offenders. Socrates finds this definition unsatisfying, since there are many other holy deeds.
He asks Euthyphro instead to give him a general definition that identifies the universal feature among holy deeds. Euthyphro suggests that what is holy is what is agreeable to the gods, and if Socrates’ claim that the gods often disagree is true, then what is agreeable to one might not be agreeable to all. Is Plato suggesting that there is no such thing as a definition of holiness or piety; that there is no one feature that all holy deeds have in common? And if he does think that there is a common link, why doesn’t he reveal it to us in the dialogue?
This brings about the question of, what actions are virtuous and moral? The teachings of Socrates in Plato’s The Five Dialogues provide an answer to the dilemma of the portly fella. The book of Crito portrays the scene of Socrates in his jail cell awaiting execution when he’s approached by an old friend, Crito, a philosopher and nobleman with sufficient funds to help Socrates escape from his prison cell. Crito repeatedly argues with Socrates in an attempt to convince him to flee his cell.
The first argument that Crito presents is his argument of reputation in which he states, “Surely there can be no worse reputation than to value money more highly than one’s friends, for the majority will not believe that you yourself were not willing to leave prison while we were eager for you to do so. ” Crito is essentially saying that that people will think that Crito chose his money over saving Socrates to which Socrates simply rebuts, “My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think?
The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done” (Plato, Five Dialogues; Crito: pg. 47). Effectively Socrates is saying that Crito shouldn’t concern himself with the majority but with the reasonable because the reasonable see it the way it is. Crito then responds saying that the majority has the power to inflict the greatest evils, which in this case is death for Socrates, “You see Socrates, that one must also pay attention to the opinion of the majority.
Your present situation makes clear that the majority can inflict not the least but pretty well the greatest evils if one is slandered among them” (Plato, Five Dialogues; Crito: pg. 47). In the portly fella case, you must be reasonable, and the reasonable thing is to not push the portly fella onto the tracks. A reasonable person wouldn’t even think to murder somebody in order save others, especially when you share no association with the other people besides your present location.
Using Socrates’ teachings, we are to expect others to believe that things occurred exactly as they happen. The next argument that Crito presents is his argument of shame. In this argument, Crito attempts to shame Socrates into escaping, presenting arguments such as, by not escaping Socrates is bringing about what his enemies want, Socrates is abandoning his children, and that people will generally think that we (Crito and colleagues) were cowards for not trying to save Socrates.
Socrates’ noble response is that nobody should willingly do wrong, so he shouldn’t do wrong himself, and if Socrates’ shouldn’t willingly do wrong, then he shouldn’t escape. By escaping, Socrates would willingly do wrong, and he would be violating the social contract that he made with Athens by being a citizen of the city-state. Just as Socrates wasn’t willing to do wrong by escaping from prison, you shouldn’t be willing do wrong by murdering the portly fella, for that would be violating the social contract within our society as it is immoral and illegal to knowingly take the life of another.
This does not necessarily answer the question of, is Plato suggesting that there is no such thing as a definition of holiness, that there is no one feature that all holy deeds have in common, however it may answer the question of what actions are virtuous and moral? In this dialogue, Socrates suggest that nobody should willingly do wrong according to the social contract within individual societies. This idea can be paralleled to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. In Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant introduces and describes his idea of a good will and categorical imperative.
Kant was a German philosopher who wanted to discover the supreme principle of morality, and wanted to protect morality from those who would violate or destroy it. Early on he established that if one were to act morally, one would be acting from a good will, or one would have a good intent for behavior. But, eventually he had to widen the scope of what that intention meant. In Kant’s perspective, the one thing in the world that is unambiguously good is the “good will. ”
Qualities of character (wit, intelligence, courage, etc. or qualities of good fortune (wealth, status, good health) may be used for either good or bad purposes. By contrast, a good will is intrinsically good–even if its efforts fail to bring about positive results. Kant then established that somebody who acts from a good will is somebody who acts from duty. A person who acts from duty lives with the mindset of ought should rightness. This meant that the person acting from duty always acted the way they ought to act, choosing the morally correct action.
In the portly fella case, if we apply the mindset of what ought to be done should be what is right, it is almost obvious that you ought to not push and murder the portly fella, for murder would be the morally incorrect action. This distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty can be found in Kant’s shopkeeper case. In this specific case, the shopkeeper charges his customers fair prices because he doesn’t want to anger them and lose customers rather than charging his customers fair prices because it is the right thing to do.
There is a clear moral difference between the shopkeeper that does it for his own advantage to keep from offending other customers and the shopkeeper who does it from duty and the principle of honesty. The shopkeeper who chooses prices only to not lose or offend customers acts merely in accordance with duty, not from duty. John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher who studied utilitarianism, in the case of the portly fella and the trolley dilemma, would pose the question of what option would bring about the most happiness for the greatest number.
Mills value theory is, happiness is the intrinsic good, and unhappiness is the intrinsic bad, so we ought to promote happiness for as many sentient beings as possible. One would say that pushing the portly fella onto the tracks in order to save the people would be the right thing to do because it would bring about the most collective happiness. But who’s to say that the five innocent people awaiting their fate on the tracks aren’t instead villains who would bring about unhappiness after the portly fella saved them.
There is no consistent metric to determine what action will bring about the most happiness, so we are left almost right where we started. Kant’s response to this situation would be his categorical imperative. Categorical imperatives command that some action is necessary in and of itself. Since an imperative with universal and intrinsic validity cannot include any circumstantial considerations, the only possible categorical imperative is that actions must conform to a requirement of universal validity. The categorical imperative can be paralleled to the universal olden rule, however the categorical imperative calls for more than merely treating others how you want to be treated.
The categorical imperative states you should act only in a way that you would want your action to become a universal moral law. In the trolley dilemma, if you were to push the portly fella, according to Kant’s categorical imperative, you would be implying that you would want your action to represent a universal moral law. Meaning that by pushing the portly fella, you would suggest that no matter what the circumstances were, you would want anybody to do the same.
Rational beings may pursue certain ends using appropriate means. Ends that are based on physical needs or wants will always provide merely personal happiness. The categorical imperative, however, may be based only on something that is an end in itself, an end that is a means only to itself and not to some other need, desire, or purpose. Rational beings are ends in themselves. While pursuing wants and desires, rational beings must always view themselves as ends in themselves. They must also recognize that other rational beings are ends in themselves as well.
Thus the categorical imperative in terms of the will of a rational being is to act in such a way that you always treat other people not merely as means to some end, but also as ends in themselves. If you were to push the portly fella, you would be treating him as a mere means to an end and not an end in itself. For if he were not on the bridge or was too light to stop the trolley then no action would result, meaning his role is solely or merely the means towards an end, the portly fella’s involvement in this case is completely situational, for if he were too light or not near the tracks he would not be involved in this situation at all.