A reply to Thomson on 'turning the trolley'; a case study illustrating the importance of a hohfeldian analysis of the 'mechanics' of rights

Abstract

In her latest writing on the trolley problem, 'Turning the Trolley,' Judith Jarvis Thomson defends the following counter-intuitive position: if confronted with a choice of allowing a trolley to hit and kill five innocent people on the track straight ahead, or turning it onto one innocent person on a side-track, a bystander must allow it to hit the five straight ahead. In contrast, Thomson claims, the driver of the trolley has a duty to turn it from the five onto the one. Thomson’s argument is fundamentally flawed in several important ways. We explain her argument and identify its major flaws. Our aims are: (a) to show that Thomson has not provided reason to think such an act is not permissible, and (b) to use the process of exposing the weaknesses in different parts of her argument to demonstrate the importance of undertaking what we call a Hohfeldian analysis of the 'mechanics' of the rights in play. A Hohfeldian 'mechanics' of rights extends the distinctions that Hohfeld first introduced to take into account the pro tanto normative 'forces' at work on an agent, the balance of which determines who in the end has what kind of right.

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Alec Walen
Rutgers University - New Brunswick

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