The problem is thus:
Suppose that there is a tram which is heading madly down the tracks. Further ahead; up the line, there are five people standing about and they will be unable to get out of the way once the tram arrives. The tram is headed straight for them and if it continues, they will be squished.
Now suppose that you are standing some distance away and next to a lever that will trigger a set of points. If you pull this lever, the tram will switch to track.
However, you also notice that on that track there is another person standing about.
You have two options:
1. Do nothing, and the tram kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, which would switch the tram to the other track where it will kill one person.
Which is ethically the correct choice?
Most people come up with the utilitarian choice, to pull the lever. In doing so, by sacrificing one, you save the five. I don't know if this qualifies as consequentialism or not but is suggests to me that the ends justify the means; even if doing so might be morally repugnant.
The nice thing about thought experiments is that you don't have to worry about shifting heavy equipment about if you want to change things about the experiment to test for something else; nor do you have to worry about about cleaning up or knocking anything on the floor. If thought experiments had to be conducted in normal laboratories, I'm sure that I'd be breaking all kinds of expensive apparatus, because I have all the poise and grace of a wildebeest in an antiques store.
Suppose that we change our problem.
This train has been hijacked by some known criminals who have robbed the bank and is heading down a set of tracks to a point where an angry mob is waiting for them, where they will tear the criminals limb from limb.
There is a set of points which leads to a siding, where the police are waiting to arrest the criminals. If arrested, the criminals will be sent to prison but they will not be torn asunder and killed by an angry mob.
1. Do nothing?
2. Telephone the police so that they can switch the points and send the criminals to prison, rather than being torn apart by the mob?
Suppose then that someone did telephone the police and that the police did nothing. Does their lack of action constitute negligence on their part, if they knew full well that the criminals would be torn to pieces and killed?
You can probably guess where I'm going with this. The Australian Federal Police have come under scrutiny for precisely this sort of thing. Having known beforehand than Chan and Sukumaran were trafficking drugs to Indonesia, they have now come out and argued that their lack of action did not contribute to Chan and Sukumaran's eventual execution. When I saw this plastered all over the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, I thought that the AFP's actions condensed nicely into some variation of the trolley problem. The question still remains though, can the AFP be held at least part way responsible for the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran? The AFP argues 'no'.
Commissioner Colvin, flanked by deputy commissioners Mike Phelan and Leanne Close, mounted a robust defence of the AFP's actions, hitting back at claims that the force had "blood on our hands" or had "shopped" the Bali nine to protect its relationship with the Indonesian police on issues such as counter-terrorism.
Mr Colvin repeatedly stressed the devastation that drugs caused and pointed out that it was the fundamental job of the police to fight crime. Asked whether the AFP owed the Chan and Sukumaran families an apology he said: "We can't apologise for the role that we have to try and stop illicit drugs coming to this country."
- Sydney Morning Herald, 5th May 2015
It doesn't help that the media tends to cloud issues considerably. Certain sections of the media in 2004 when Chan and Sukumaran were arrested, were decidedly unsympathetic to their plight; arguing that whatever they got, including the death penalty, was entirely their fault and that they should have been prepared to accept the consequences of their actions before they embarked on their journey. There is some internal merit to this but then you can ask all sorts of questions, such as if the death penalty is to be used, when should it be used and for what crimes? If Australia is a jurisdiction which doesn't use the death penalty, is it acceptable for Australian nationals to be subject to it in a foreign country?
Personally I think that the death penalty is abhorrent and is nothing short of state sponsored revenge. If the death penalty is used, then its an undoable action and if the justice system makes a mistake and ends up convicting an innocent person, then what's the point of the justice system if it kills the wrong people?
In the case of Chan and Sukumaran, did they really deserve the death penalty? I think not because I don't think that the state should be given the power to exact such a punishment. I then want to ask questions of the AFP. They knew beforehand that Indonesia could exact the death penalty and it was within their power to act and arrest Chan and Sukumaran before their trip to Indonesia and yet still failed to act. I'd argue that in failing to arrest Chan and Sukumaran on Australian soil, the AFP failed to fulfill their function to enforce the law within Australia. Furthermore, by failing to arrest Chan and Sukumaan, they've also failed to act in going what they could have to save two lives.
Philosophy as a thing, probably seems fairly abstract and a bit naff to most people but ultimately its point is to ask questions to enable people to live better lives. I bet that no-one in the AFP ever saw their action or inaction as a thought experiment being carried out in the real world. Instead of breaking imaginary equipment in the laboratory, I think that their inaction contributed in part to the destruction of people in the real world.