A Moral Ground for the Means Principle
By Alec Walen
This paper focuses on providing a rationale for the ‘means principle.’ This principle suggests that there is a prohibition on treating people merely as a means. It looks at the differences between the ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Trolley Switch’ cases, and argues that the difference cannot be explained simply by intentions. He suggests instead that the difference is based on the distinction between ‘restrictive rights’ and ‘un-restrictive rights’. If the victim restricts your ability to act as you otherwise would if they were not present (e.g. the victim on the tracks in the ‘Trolly Switch’ case), then that victim only has ‘restrictive rights’ which are relatively weaker. A victim that does not restrict your ability to act as you would if they were not present (e.g. the fat man) has ‘un-restrictive rights’ which are relatively stronger.
The paper begins with the description of two scenarios central to the means principle.
Fat Man Case: You can save five whose lives are threatened by a runaway trolley only by causing a fat man to fall off a bridge into the path of the trolley, thereby slowing the trolley but killing the fat man. Killing the fat man in this way is a paradigmatically impermissible act.
Trolley Switch case: You, a bystander at a switch, can save five only by turning a trolley away from them and onto another track, where it will then run over and kill a single person, who I will call the “side-track man.”
Walen argues that killing the side-track man seems, to most people, himself included, permissible. The most intuitively appealing explanation for the difference between Fat Man and Trolley Switch is that in Fat Man you would use the fat man merely as a means of saving the five, whereas in Trolley Switch you would not so use the side-track man.
Walen begins by noting that the two traditional arguments for the means principle are not sufficient. The intentions rational, which focuses on whether you mean to use the victim as a means to some end, can be significant, but doesn’t account for the means principle. Similarly, the causal rational, which focuses on whether the victim occupies the causal role of a means of achieving a good, is inadequate because causes cannot carry moral weight on their own, and can only get their weight from the intentions or rights of agents. He replaces these theories with the Restricting Claims Principle (RCP), which rests on the idea of moral externalities. The point to emphasize here is that if it can be defended as a sound moral principle, then it would explain why the claims of those who, without their consent, would serve as your a means of achieving some good are relatively stronger than the claims of those whom you would harm only as a side effect of doing what you could do without them.
Part I: Unsuccessful Attempts to Explain and Defend the Means Principle
A. The Implausible MPI
The MPI is concerned with the intentions you have in your mind as you act. One problem is that in acting, you do not show proper concern for the victim as an end in herself. Another problem is the lack of consent resulting in a use of the victim as merely means (rather than a means and an end, as in a contract). Quinn argues that if you see the victim as ‘material to be strategically shaped,’ you are trating them merely as a means, which is forbidden by the MPI. This doesn’t take into account the objective reality picture of morality – the idea that an act can be impermissible regardless of what reasons you have for acting. Though there are some categories where reasons matter – if promises were made, if a judge or other person with authority who must act only on legitimate reasons, and inherently illicit reasons (such as racism in private life) – these exceptions do not extend to the Fat Man or Trolley Switch cases.
B. The Mysterious MPC
According to the MPC, causing harm to someone who, without her consent, plays the causal role of a means to achieving some good is harder to justify than causing the same harm to her if she does not play that kind of causal role. The challenge here is to make mere causal facts morally relevant. This cannot be done adequately without tying causal explanations to the conception of rights claims.
C. Earlier Discussion of Rights and the MP
An earlier argument suggested that the difference between Trolley Switch and Fat Man by appealing to the thought that you are allowed to redirect a threat if you “can make it descend onto the one by means which do not themselves constitute infringements of rights of the one.” This means that ‘pushing’ one into the path of the trolley would constitute a rights violation, but throwing the switch would not. However, she realized that the stringency of a right, or the existence of one, depends on the results from what you do. In this case, the side-track man in Trolley Switch has a claim against you – that you not throw the switch – that is at least as strong as his claim that you not kill him. This makes his situation the same as the Fat Man. She claims that the claims of the Fat Man and the Trolley Switch man are the same, and thus appeals to rights cannot show the difference between the two stories.
2. The Structure for Balancing Claims
Rights are claims that you morally respect, which require you to perform or avoid performing some act. You have a duty or liberty right to act or not as you deem fit. Walen illustrates with Trolley Switch: the claims of the five on you are that you save them by turning a threatening trolley away from them, while the claim of the side-track man is that you not kill him by turning a trolley in his direction. The agent has claims as well. You have a claim not to be required to turn the trolley if you do not want to, and a claim not to be prohibited from turning (i.e. to be permitted to turn) the trolley if you want to. If there were only people on one of the tracks, then you would have a moral duty to turn the trolley away from them, but with people on both tracks, the claims are close to balancing and you have the freedom to act.
3. Six Familiar Factors that Affect the Balance of Claims
These six factors are easily defended in terms of the purposes of rights – providing a normative space that helps individuals promote their welfare and also allows them to lead their own lives while remaining respectful of others as equals who seek to do the same. The factors are: (1) welfare (more you can affect someone’s welfare, the greater their claim on you), (2) special relationships (promises, contracts constrain your liberty to act), (3)property (you can exclude others from your property), (4) the difference between positive (to be helped) and negative (not to be harmed) claim (negative claims have priority over positive – based on the need for freedom to live your own life), (5) culpable behavior (someone who harms or threatens to harm has weaker claims not to be harmed or to be helped), (6) numbers count (five positive claims can outweigh one negative claim, for example). This helps to show that the only place for a difference in the claims between Fat Man and Trolley Switch is in the ones – the fat man and the side-track man.
Part II: Restricting Claims Principle as the Grounds for the Means Principle
A. The Restricting Claims Principle and Moral Externalities
The distinctive idea in the RCP is that a claimant can have a claim that has the potential to make other claimants worse than they would otherwise be – i.e. a claimant could impose moral externalities on others. This type of right would morally restrict you from doing what you would hae otherwise been able to do to help or avoid harming others. Since this ‘restricting’ claim unduly limits what you could have done from others, is weaker than an ‘unrestrictive’ claim.
For example, in the Trolley Switch example, the man on the tracks has a claim to not be killed, which would morally bar you from what you would have otherwise done to save the five. Symmetrically, the five each have a ‘restricting’ claim on you that morally bar you from what you would have otherwise done to save the one. However, the fat man’s claim in Fat Man is not restricting. His claim not to be thrown on the tracks does not bar you from doing whatever you would have done to save the five if he was not there. Respecting his claim as a right does not make anyone any worse off than they would have been if he had not been present. This explains why it is valid to flip the switch, but not to push the fat man onto the tracks.
B. The Moral Ground of the RCP and, Derivatively, of the MP
Why should a restricting claim be weaker than a non-restricting claim? It is based on one of the framinig ideals for rights – that each person has her own life to lead. Insofar as a person has not done anything as an agent to make others worse off, and (the new thought) insofar as she has no claims as a patient that have the potential to make others worse off, she should not have to make a great sacrifice of her welfare for the sake of others.
The symmetry of the restricting claims of the five and the one in Trolley Switch allow us to make a decision to save the five based on the greater number of positive claims outweighing a lesser number of negative claims. The key to RCP is showing why the restricting claims are weaker than they would otherwise be.
C. Further Clarifying the RCP
The RCP does not attach to persons, rather, it concerns the strength of claims in particular justifications for action. If the act is permissible, then the various actions that correspond to it are also. Also, restricting or not restricting is not related to whether claims are positive or negative. Only the restrictiveness of the claim affects its strength.
D. Responses to a Famously Problematic Case: The Loop Trolley
A new scenario: This case builds on Trolley Switch, adding one significant change: the tracks do not continue to diverge; rather they circle back to form a loop. In Judith Thomson’s original formulation we are to imagine: that the five on the straight track are thin, but thick enough so that although all five will be killed if the trolley goes straight, the bodies of the five will stop it, and it will therefore not reach the one. On the other hand, the one on the righthand track is fat, so fat that his body will by itself stop the trolley, and the trolley will therefore not reach the five. In this case the claims of both the group of five as well as the individual are all non-restricting – without either group there, you could not save the other. This symmetry again allows the issue to be resolved based on numbers, so that the five may be saved rather than the one. RCP argues that if a person has a non-restricting claim, she can claim that her welfare is held independently of others, but this is not the case in the Loop Trolley – each side depends on the other for their lives. Given this interdependence, it seems fair to treat their claims as on par.
E. A Gesture Towards Handling Other Challenging Cases
There a wide variety of cases to which this theory could be applied. It may be of interest in areas involving property, positive and negative claims, and others.