Kant’s philosophy, known as Kantian Deontology, has every human being capable of having the unique capacity for rationality. No other animal possesses such a capacity for reasoned thought and action than humans. Because of this, Kant believes human disposition, emotions and consequences should have no action in moral play. Therefore, the precursor behind an action must be based on duty and planned before the action takes place. According to Kant, people are basically rational animals worthy of respect. Because of this rational trait, Kant creates “The Categorical Imperative” which is the single static binding ethical norm, from which all derivations of ethical rules come from. It is an imperative in that it issues commands or rules to us. It is categorical to which we cannot remove ourselves from it. We are ethically bound by it because of the creatures that define us.
There are 3 specific formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. However, we will only look at Kant’s second formulations for the purpose of this Trolley and Fat Man problem. Kant’s second formulation states “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” This quote states that we can “use people”. For example, we use a hammer to break a wall, or a spoon to stir a pot, or an axe to cut a tree down. However, we can’t use a person to stop a train. People are rational beings; hence they are deserving of respect; and to treat them like a hammer or a spoon or an axe is to undermine reason which is the very thing that defines us according to Kant.
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By using the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative we can understand the stance of Kant to the Trolley and Fat Man problem. In the Trolley case, just by flipping the switch, we can save 5 lives over 1 life. Yes, by flipping the switch we are thereby killing a person, however, we are not using the person we kill. On the other hand, with the Fat Man problem, we are using the Fat Man to stop the train. We are using his body as a force to stop a train, no better than using a rock or boulder. In my opinion, because of Kant’s theory, he would pull the switch in the Trolley case and he would not push the fat man in the Fat Man case.
The second philosopher we are going to look at is Mill and how he would react to these 2 cases. Mill’s theory of Utilitarianism is based on the simple faced of maximizing the happiness of society. Specifically Mill states that “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.” Because of this definition, changing the direction of the train by pulling the switch, will follow the Mill’s theory of Unitarianism, because less people will die, which would lower the sadness of society. In the case of the Fat Man problem, by using the same reasoning, you would push the fat man off the train to save move lives. 5 lives are greater than 1 life, so you will push the fat man off the train regardless of committing murder.
However, now if you put a spin into the problem, for example, the single person on the track is a pregnant woman. Will this change the action of Utilitarianism, stating that the pregnant woman is worth more than 5 lives? What if the single person on the track is the President of the United States. Will saving the pregnant women or the President of the United States than saving the other 5 lives give a higher order of happiness? Applying the theory of Utilitarianism has too many “what ifs” and the majority of the time does not give a clear path to an answer. There are too many variables to judge the happiness of society if this happens, or another option happens.
In conclusion, Mill and Kant have 2 completely different viewpoints on this case. Kant on one hand views that we can’t use humans as tools, therefore not pushing the fat man to stop the train. Mill on the other hand, states that by the theory of Utilitarianism, he will push the fat man, because it will lower the impact of unhappiness on society.