Let there be again a runaway trolley, whose driver can steer it on track A, killing 5, or on track B, killing 1.

Suppose the initial position of the switch is track A. If I switch it to B, it seems that I will be “aggressing” or “initiating unjust violence” against the 1 man.

And if the initial position is track B, then by switching to A, I will be “aggressing” against the 5.

Does libertarianism then advocate jumping out of the trolley and, by leaving the choice of the track perhaps to some random number generator, washing my hands of this dilemma?

Perhaps we can reason as follows. Do I have a duty not to kill all 6 people? Well, ought implies can, and since I cannot preserve all 6, it is not the case that I ought to preserve them. I do not therefore have a duty not to kill the man on track B. I can lawfully choose who lives and who dies. Therefore, I do not violate his libertarian rights.

Here is another take on this. I am not responsible for the trolley’s uncontrolled running away. If the default direction of the trolley is A, then I am not harming the 5 men; the trolley is. I cannot be blamed for the outcome. By switching from A to B (and presumably making a good decision, as 5 > 1), I benefit the 5 men by sparing their lives against an otherwise unavoidable accident yet harm the 1 man. Is the benefit a positive duty while avoiding the harm a negative one? And if so, doesn’t the negative duty have precedence?

It can again be countered that we have negative duties to others not to harm them unjustly, and the harm to the 1 man is not unjust, as is clear from the foregoing.

Now it will be agreed that a murder charge is out of the question if I switch to B. Moreover, the default direction is irrelevant; I still choose where to steer the trolley, and there is no praxeological difference between action and inaction or commission and omission. In the next post we’ll consider a few more scenarios to test our moral intuitions.


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