Along the lines of my last post...
I recently listened to an old episode of WNYC's Radiolab about morality. They were discussing a scientific study in which people were asked how they would respond in certain situations that required a moral decision. The first situation was like this: You're standing at a rail yard and you see five guys working on a track, and then on that same track you see a train headed toward them, you're too far away and/or it's too noisy for you to warn them, but you do have a switch that would divert the train onto the neighboring track and on the neighboring track there is only one single worker. Do you switch the train onto the other track, thus killing one man who otherwise would have lived, but saving the five men who otherwise would have died?
In the study, nine out of ten people said yes, they would throw the switch.
The second situation is like this: Same rail yard, same five workers on the track with the train coming. But this time you're on an overpass directly over the tracks and you don't have a switch, but there's a great big fat guy next to you, and you realize that if you just push him off the overpass onto the tracks, he'll die, but his body will stop the train and save the five workers. Do you push the fat man?
In the study, nine out of ten people said no, they would not push the fat guy.
I guess it might be evidence of my intolerance to hypocrisy, but I answered yes to both situations, before I knew the results of the study.
There are a lot of issues that this study raises: What is the material difference between the two situations? In both cases you are killing one person in order to save five people, the only difference is in the method. I think that the real difference is that in the first scenario, you are one step removed from the immediacy of the action; you're just flipping a switch, it takes intellectual reasoning to link that action to the altered course of the train and then another step to the death of the man hit by the train. On the other hand, the murder of the fat man is viscerally immediate to your action of pushing him from a great height, this takes no intellectual reasoning to realize, you pushed, he died.
I would argue that there is no moral difference between the results of acting in each situation, the difference is all in how shielded you are from the consequences of your action.