Gods & Trolleys

This isn’t an ordinary post but I thought I’d tackle an odd but interesting subject since it’s been wracking my mind recently.

In philosophy there is an ethical dilemma known as “Trolley Dilemma” which goes a little something like this: A person is on a trolley riding along on train tracks. Suddenly they spot in the distance a fork in the tracks with a single person tied to the tracks on the right side and five people tied to the tracks on the left side. The person tries to pull the brakes but finds that they aren’t working. So they can’t stop the trolley but they do have the means to choose which track the trolley will choose in the fork. Which track should the driver choose?

There are a number of answers to this dilemma depending on the type of ethical theory applied. Today though I wanted to tackle a different perspective on the matter using divine command theory.

Divine Command Theory (DCT), simply put, states that ethically right and wrong actions are determined by the commands of a god or gods. This theory is a very common ethical theory but most people aren’t aware of it by name. I’ll be dealing primarily with Christianity in this discussion.

The correct answer to the “Trolley Dilemma” for a Divine Command Theorist would be to choose which ever choice god commands. Unfortunately the bible, to my knowledge, doesn’t really talk about the idea of compounding sins (i.e. if committing two sins is actually worse than committing one sin). It also has conflicting verses on whether one sin is worse than another.

Oddly the bible does have few verses proposing the idea of greater sins and even unforgivable sins (Matthew 12:31-32, 1 Cor. 6:18, and John 19:11). The latter very much flies in the face of the often repeated belief that god forgives all. One verse very much contradicts these previous ideas, though, and that would be James 2:10:

“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

This provides a very problematic issue. If it is true that committing a sin makes a person guilty of committing every sin then fundamentally all sin would therefore be equal in the eyes of god. So in light of the lack of information on compounding sins and that god sees all sin as equal, the answer to the “Trolley Dilemma” under these circumstances is that it doesn’t really matter which track you choose.

If all sin is equal and compounding sins aren’t a factor then killing one person is no different than killing five people.

This creates a very troubling problem for divine command theorists. By pure nature most people tend to view unethical and illegal actions in gradients. For example most people would probably agree that stealing a candy bar from store is no where as bad someone stealing an extremely expensive car. To punish them the same would seem unfair and most likely counter intuitive.

But if all wrong doing is the same in the eyes of god then this brings great comfort to extremely evil individuals and immense discomfort for the mostly righteous divine command theorist. How comforting is it for a tyrant to think that the actions of a genocidal dictator would be viewed the same as telling a white lie? And how horrifying would it be for an individual who tells a white lie to be seen as just as bad as a mass murderer?

I believe that the innate human response to the “Trolley Dilemma” for most people would likely be to choose the track with only one person on it. Unfortunately, under these biblical circumstances that I have stated, the bible offers little to no solace as to what the right answer truly is.