Applying Deontology and Utilitarian Theories to Ethical Dilemmas


The issue behind this writing assignment involves the following ethical dilemma that requires an evaluation of the merits of two prominent ethical theories; utilitarianism and deontology.  The cases that you will examine (Engineer Bill, Joe the Janitor, and the Evil Hobo) are quite unusual, but the principles behind the cases are of great importance, for they are fundamental to many of the more ordinary moral dilemmas that we face every day. 

The paper should begin with a thesis statement as the opening sentence together with a brief preview of the premises that support the thesis.  The paper should examine the implications and, perhaps, the presuppositions of the two ethical theories.  This is an argumentative essay, not a research paper, so no bibliographical references are needed.  You are to write a 2-3 page, type-written, argumentative essay (double spaced 12 pt. font) on the following issue. 


Sarah is a ten year old girl who enjoys playing by the train tracks and watching the train pass each day at 12:00 noon.  She lives in a small town where there is a junction of the tracks.  Engineer Bill (a retired train operator) sits at the train depot next to the juncture.  The tracks in one direction dangle over the edge of a deep ravine, because the bridge that used to support the tracks was destroyed during the Civil War.  On one particular day, Sarah came to the tracks a bit before noon and discovered a lever that she had not seen before.  Not knowing what the lever was for, she decided to move the lever, switching the tracks in the direction of the ravine.  In doing so, she fell and became stuck between the rails of the tracks.  Engineer Bill ran to free her before the train came through but found that he was presented with a serious dilemma.  If he switches the tracks back in the proper direction so as to prevent the train with its one hundred passengers from going into the ravine, he will directly kill Sarah.  If he allows the train to go off the cliff, Sarah will live.  These two courses of action are his only alternatives.  Issue:  What is Bill’s moral responsibility? 

Grading Criteria

The paper will be graded according to the following criteria.

1. Is there a clear thesis statement at the beginning of the essay?

2. Are the supporting premises clearly delineated in the introduction?

3. Does the body of the paper connect to, and expand upon, the argument previewed in the introduction?

4. Are there transition statements that connect the arguments in the body of the paper with the thesis and the arguments previewed in the introduction?

5. Is the paper clearly written and free from syntactical and grammatical imprecisions?

6. Is the paper free from extraneous or irrelevant material?

7. Are utilitarianism and deontology explicitly defined in the essay and is the general moral issue pertaining to these two schools of thought explained?

8. Is the issue of the distinction between “causing” and “allowing” harm defined and explained?

9. Are “constraints,” and ‘thresholds” explained and their implications drawn out in connection with this moral dilemma?

10. Does the essay show careful analysis, and is the general argument cogent?

11.  Is consideration given to the Joe the Janitor case and the Evil Hobo case?


Deontology:  The ethical view that at least some actions are intrinsically right/wrong irrespective of consequences.

Utilitarianism:  The ethical view that all actions are determined to be right/wrong on the basis of consequences and specifically that which will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Constraints:  The view held by deontologists that there are occasions where one is morally prohibited from taking an action even though that action will, in fact, produce the greatest amount of human happiness (e.g. constrained from torturing one innocent person even though the torturing of the one would, somehow, prevent the torturing of ten other innocent people). 

Thresholds:  A view held by some deontologists and some utilitarians which allows the deontologist to relax constraints so that harm could be caused to an innocent person in order to prevent a much greater amount of harm to others (torturing an innocent in order to prevent the torturing of ten others), and which allows the utilitarian to refrain from causing harm to an innocent person even though causing harm to that person would produce a much greater amount of happiness (e.g. not torturing an innocent even though the torture would prevent ten other tourtures).  But we should examine whether or not thresholds are inconsistent with the fundamental ethical principles of both deontology and utilitarianism.  The adoption of thresholds is an attempt (perhaps a feeble one) to avoid the unfavorable implications of each of the two theories; deontology and utilitarianism.  Without thresholds, deontologists are morally required, at times, to allow great harm, and utilitarians are morally required to cause great harm.  The “threshold” for the deontologist is a limit on the amount of harm that it is moral to allow, and the threshold for the utilitarian is a limit on the amount or type of harm that it is moral to cause.

Related Cases/Implications

As well, you should examine the following two cases in conjunction with the position that you adopt on the Engineer Bill case:

1.  Two hundred years from now laws allow doctors to kill innocent people as long as by doing so the doctor will be able save more people than will be lost.  In the year 2200 Joe the Janitor comes in to work at midnight in the emergency room of a local hospital.  In the middle of mopping the floor (some things never change) 100 janitors from a local janitor convention, with varying life-threatening conditions, are admitted to emergency.  One needs a heart, another needs a lung, and so on.  They will all die shortly unless the doctor on duty does something.  They are all innocent victims of a toxic spill that happened at the convention.  The doctor knows that Joe, amazingly, is perfectly compatible with all the victims such that the doctor could save the 100 by killing Joe and distributing his body parts along with other bodily fluids.  The operation that would be required is easily within the technology of the medical profession at this future time. 

Question:  What is the doctor’s moral responsibility; to kill Joe or allow the 100 to die?  Compare your answer here with your thesis and argument in the Engineer Bill case and integrate this case into your essay and your discussion of the Bill case. 

2.  The Evil Hobo case is exactly like the original Engineer Bill case, except that instead of Sarah switching the tracks, an evil Hobo lurking around that day, switches the tracks and ties innocent Sarah in the same position as before.  Bill cannot free her and must decide whether to switch the tracks.

Question:  What is Bill’s moral responsibility; should he switch the tracks or not?  Integrate this case into your essay and your discussion of the Engineer Bill case.   

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