In the famous "trolley problems" (developed by contemporary philosophers such as Phillipa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson), a hypothetical observer is faced with several similar-seeming scenarios involving runaway trolleys or the like where there's a choice between letting five people die (if you do not intervene) and doing something that causes one other person to die, in order to save the five. The fun bit is this: Although many of the dilemmas seem similar, our moral intuitons tend to split on them, raising the question of what's driving the intuitions. Although discussion of these sorts of problems began in philosophy, with philosophers relying on their armchair intuitions, psychologists such as Marc Hauser have recently started to look at the psychology of this more systematically.
Two of the most famous scenarios are the "side track" and the "footbridge" scenarios.
In the side track scenario, you see a runaway trolley headed toward five people who will certainly die if you do nothing. You are standing next to a switch that would allow you to divert the trolley to a side track, saving the five people. Unfortunately, there is one person on the side track, who will certainly die if you divert the trolley. Question: Is it morally permissible (or even good) to divert the trolley?
The footbridge scenario is similar except that you're standing on a footbridge above the track. The only way to save the five people is to block the trolley with a sufficiently heavy object. The only sufficiently heavy object you can reach in time is a fat man (alternatively, perhaps more politely, a hiker with a heavy backpack) who is standing next to you. You could push him off the footbridge and the trolley would grind to a halt on his body, killing him but saving the five. You yourself are insufficiently heavy to stop the trolley with your own body. Queston: Is it morally permissible (or even good) to push the fat man?
Most people seem to have the intuition that it is morally permissible to flip the switch to divert the trolley but that it's not morally permissible to push the fat man. Why, exactly, is a very interesting question that I won't go into here. All I want to ask is this: Are there any real life scenarios in which someone has done something like pushing the fat man? Given that there is a non-trivial minority of people who do think it's okay (or even good) to do so, you might think one of them would have been faced with such an opportunity and done the thing. Of course, I'm not asking just about runaway trolleys but about any scenario with a similar structure, in which one kills an innocent person through an act of direct personal violence in order to save several others. I exclude abstract decision making involving administrative balancing the costs of lives against each other in times of war and emergency, such as deciding to reroute life-saving supplies from one place to another or asking one platoon to charge into the fire to save the battalion. What I'm asking about is archetypal violence -- murder, by a civilian in no position of authority, of an innocent bystander -- to save other people's lives.
In other words: Do people ever put their life-counting consequentialism into action? If so, you'd think it would make the news. In the 1980s Bernard Goetz made big headlines when he shot some muggers in a New York subway (and there's even a Wikipedia entry about it). You'd think pushing the fat man would be even bigger news. And although fat-man like scenarios are surely very rare, in this world of billions they must sometimes arise.
(HT: Jeanette Kennett for forcefully posing this issue to me.)