The Trolley Problem
the popular meme explained

Do nothing and let five people die, because steering the trolley would amount to actively killing someone, which is inherently wrong.

This answer corresponds with the ethical paradigm of

Deontology according to Kant

Deontology is an ethical theory that focuses on the actions themselves, instead of their consequences. It is often described as duty based ethical theory because at the core of deontology is the notion of obligation to follow rules and/or laws. According to Kant, there are two kinds of rules that human beings follow. He divides them according to 'categorical imperative' and 'hypothetical imperative'. The hypothetical imperative applies to cases where someone wishes to attain an end. For example:

If I want to quench my hunger and thirst, I must drink and eat something.

By contrast, a categorical imperative is unconditional and does not have an end directly in sight. It is a rule that must be followed under all circumstances. To put it somewhat philosophically, a categorical imperative is an end in itself. Kant gives three different formulations, even though he claims that all three formulations are the same. Nevertheless, the most widely known formulation of the categorical imperative is the first:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The reason the categorical imperative or duty based ethics/deontology became so popular after Kant can be traced back to the popularity of Utilitarianism of Mill. Deontological ethics expresses deep dissatisfaction with Utilitarianim and its popularity in the middle of 19th Century. Utilitarianism cannot adequately deal with selfishness or immorality more generally. Essecially, deontologists are asking how it is possible that there is murder, there is theft, there is adultery - how is this a moral system if we see these on a daily basis?

In Kant's view, an ethical theory should eb founded on unconditional rules that settle what is and what is not morally acceptable. Where a Utilitarian would posit that theft is wrong because it does not maximize good for those involved (i.e. look at the consequences of an action); for Kant, consequences and the good are quite irrelevant to those whose sole purpose is to enrich themselves. In other words, Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that is only 'hypothetical'. What is required is an ethical theory that is 'categorical'. For this reason, Kant’s ethical theory is deontological precisely because at its core are rules and not people’s desires.

I should also quickly point out that next to the categorical imperative (i.e. following rules), Kant insists on consistency and not falling into contradiction. Kant specifically uses the word rationality here, and he means that if we are rational human beings we will follow the rule that is the categorical imperative: Namely, we will only act in such a way that can be universalised. You may wonder what the relation between the categorical imperative and consistency is. Fortunately, the trolley problem is a rather good illustration of this.

In the case of the Trolley Problem, we are essentially concerned with death and murder - or as we put it initially, as actively killing someone. Saying that it is fine to murder would, according to Kant, eventually lead to a contradiction. Why? Because the notion of murder presupposes that there are living human beings. If we were to act in such a way as to make our actions a universal law, we would disregard the very notion of living human beings: If murder was universalised, there would be no human beings left.

Deontology and Communication Theory

Communication today is unavoidably linked to technological progress: radio and television, mobile phones, internet, satellites, etc. The increased use of communication through these means instead of direct communication can put deontological ethical thinking into jeopardy. For one, direct communication is not always possible - human beings need to eat, sleep, and are limited to a particular space. With the rise of telecommunication (literally, communication from afar), we face new challenges: communication can be stored for later use in form of a blog post or comment, voicemail or tape recording. The challenge here is precisely how such communication can benefit us instead of impede us. Plato famously points out (in the 7th letter) that all that he has written is not precisely his view because the view of an author can only be precisely communicated in person.

Next to this challenge, there are also significant issues with regards to intellectual property that dominates contemporary news agencies. Where written work in the past could be directly linked to a person's interllectual property, with the rise of internet this is no longer obvious. Is a novel idea expressed in a comment to be considered intellectual property of the commenter or the website host? What if that idea is a piece of software code that has the potential to significantly reduce costs? Should an explicit statement regarding such issues be made in order to protect intellectual property? etc.

The main issue for deontologists is the lack of clarity on these issues. It should become clear that an ethical system where the core is following rules requires very clear rules to start with. It is a lack of clear rules, a deontologist would argue, that give rise of misuse of itnellectual property. Moreover, when there are no clear rules, a deontologist may avoid participation in communication entirely and focus on other, clearer sources instead (e.g. avoid publishing online and resort to radio/television instead).

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