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 condemned by all religions of the world.

This answer corresponds with the ethical paradigm of

Divine command theory and ethics

At the core of divine command theory (or theological voluntarism) is coherence with God's laws. Whether an action is ethical thus also depends on whether that action does or does not coincide with God's will. That is to say that the will of God is known and our actions are meant to coincide completely with the will of God.

While there are numerous variants of the divine command theory dependent, on both the theologians and philosophers in question, as well as particular time frame in history, they all share two aspects in common:

  1. Morality cannot be established independent of God - what is moral is entirely determined by God. There is a causal relation here: an action is good as a result of God's command.
  2. The former also implies that religious piety is equivalent to being moral. A stronger variant of this claim is that not being religious and indeed not being in full accord with God's commands results to not being moral.

The differences between theologians vary as much as those between the philosophers; and giving an overview of these differences is not particularly helpful. Generally speaking, however, differences arise on the extent of coinciding with God's will. For example, the medieval theologian / philosopher Thomas Aquinas is not directly advocating for a divine command theory. Nevertheless, he does propose a theory of natural law which strongly resembles and indeed can certainly be viewed as divine command. In short, for Aquinas an action is considered moral as long as it promotes humanity and is in accordance with 'human nature'. From a theological perspective, being in accordance with 'human nature' must also mean being in accordance with 'God's will' - because it is God who created human nature in the first place.

Objections to Divine Command Theory

While each ethical theory has its objectors, ethical command theory is one where objections are rooted in the core of its principles instead of details.

  1. On the first point of the causal relation - that actions are good as a result of God's command - the objection is raised as early as Ancient Greece. Indeed, the objection itself is rather intuitive: To put it differently, is an action good because it is commanded by God, or is an action commanded by God because it is good? In philosophy, this is known as the Euthyphro dilemma. The dilemma is not merely philosophical however, and poses a serious complication to divine command theory: if an action is good because it is commanded by God, then we must concede that any action commanded by God must be good (e.g. the many demands to kill offspring); and if an action is commanded by God because the action itself is good, then we have no need for divine command theory - after all, in such a case God's command is independent of the action.

  2. This leads us to the second point, that of religious piety. We have to ask here: what happens to irreligious people, atheists, believers in other religions, and indeed 'casual' believers who, say, do not attend Church or do not follow all of God's laws? Divine command theory entails that morality coincides with God's laws, which does not leave any room for loosely interpreting these laws. What is more, the action becomes immaterial to morality. Instead, what dictates the moral character of action is whether it was enacted by someone who believes in God or not. Identically the same action done by a religious person and an atheist would result only in the former being moral and the latter not. Understandably, this is rather dubious and divine command theory has to come to terms with this.

In the case of the Trolley Problem, and just as with Deontological ethics, we are essentially concerned with death and murder - with an active participation of killing someone by pulling a lever. Though this remains very debatable withing theological circles, God's laws clearly forbid an action that would kill someone. There are, of course, examples abundant where legally there is a difference (e.g. self-defence). When it comes to God, it is less clear when active participation in killing someone else is to be understood as part of God's command.

Divine Command and Communication Theory

As mentioned earlier, divine command theory is not limited to one religion. There are many religions and innumerabe denominations, all of which claim different (and even contradictory) commands to stem from God. Just from a dietary perspective for example - are we not to eat pork, beef, some of the seafoods, any animals at all? The answer to this naturally depends on which 'God' is believed to lay down the law. Communication should therefore always remain open between religions and require tolerance and sensitivity. This is not to say that to communicate effectively we ought to mask our views; quite the opposite, divine command theory should make it clear that most people are likely not to share our views and it is our responsibility to make these views clear to them.

See other choices | Bibliography & Other Sources