Winchester Lectures: Kamm and Permissibility
In her first Winchester Lecture, ‘Who Turned the Trolley?’, presented in Oxford on 21 October, Frances Kamm discussed some of the recent views of Judith Thomson on so-called trolley cases.
Consider a case in which you are a bystander, watching a runaway trolley heading for five people. You are able to switch the trolley onto a track heading for only one person. Both Kamm and Thomson believe that you are (at least) permitted to turn the trolley onto the track with one person.
Now consider a second case, similar to the first, except that here there is a third track, and you are on it. Thomson believes that, though it is permissible for you not to switch the trolley onto your track, it is impermissible for you to switch the trolley from the five to the other single person. You, the agent, she believes, should pay the cost of doing the good deed.
Against this, Kamm offered a moral separability principle which she called Strong Claim 1: ‘If it is permissible to impose a cost on someone for some end were there no alternative, it need not become impermissible to do so merely because one does not impose the cost on someone else when one should’.
So in the second case, Kamm suggests, it is permissible for you to turn the trolley towards the one.
But the logic of Strong Claim 1 seems to rule this out. Should we can take to be equivalent to is required to, and is required to to be equivalent to is not permitted not to. In other words, if you are imposing a cost, then it is impermissible not to impose it on yourself, which is Thomson’s view.
What this suggests, perhaps, is that the language of permissibility and impermissibility alone is not sufficient to capture certain intuitions about trolley cases. Consider, for example, the notion of moral goodness. We might say that turning the trolley towards yourself would be morally best (which is consistent with its being permissible for you not to do it), while turning it towards the one would be morally better than leaving it to kill the five. In other words, if you’re not going to turn it towards yourself, you should at least turn it towards the one rather than leave it to kill the five.