Friday, December 01, 2006

On Moral Tracks

Scenario 1: A trolley is hurrying down the track towards 5 men obliviously working on the rails. You cannot warn the men in time, but, by your side, is a switch that will divert the ill-fated trolley onto another track. BUT, on that track is a single man working on the rails. Flip the switch and the one man dies. If you don't, 5 men will die.

Question 1: Do you flip the switch?

Scenario 2: Same trolley as above but no switch, no second track. You are on a bridge above the track. There is a huge man watching in horror with you and it’s clear to your mind and truthful: if you push him off the bridge into the path of the trolley it will stop it in time to save the 5 men. (No you’re not big enough, yes the physics seem odd, and there’s no arguing with the hypothetical :-))

Question 2: Do you push the man?

Answered both yet?

Are you a normal human :-)?

It seems, in surveys, most all people choose to throw the switch (kill 1 man and save 5), but they will not push 1 man to his death and save 5. Why? Why does it seem right to so many to kill a man by moving one mass buy not by moving another? Five lives are saved in both actions, and you 100% know you’re murdering one man in both.

An interesting radio program on this question and possible reasons for why we take different paths on such moral quandaries is found streaming in mp3 here (the whole program), or here (just the trolley bit). From this radiolab program (I'd recommend the whole program).

Eh, it seemed relevant to some of these topics, but interesting nonetheless.

4 comments:

Loyalist (with defects) said...

That is interesting. I've thought about this post for sometime trying to reason it out but I keep coming to the same conclusions.

Yes, it is easier to throw the switch because the pain or death of the single individual is remote (remote meaning that its not first hand - arguably the configuration of the tracks is what kills the single victim); whereas the death of the pushed individual is direct and "deliberate".

Running the senarios in my head I've also concluded that I could throw the switch but not push the individual, but I would sacrifice myself - I mean if we are talking size wise then I definately fit the bill. :-)

Scot said...

In the program they attempt to explain it and you’re on to it. They find actually two different regions of the brain come up with those answers: flip the switch, and yet don’t push the man. One, the more recent parts of the brain, those we don’t share as much of with chimps, tells us that we morally have to switch the train, kill one man and save five, simple math. The other is in a more primitive section that seems to just say, “you can’t kill a man”; that the simple rule and it ignores the complexity.

Now, as you say, when it’s more “direct” that 2nd part takes over; it’s not detached, logical math anymore.

Later in the program they pose another scenario (the “MASH” scenario due to its use in the final episode). Here you and your child are hiding with a small village, crowded into a secret basement. Your baby is sick and crying and coughing and you hear the enemy forces approaching. So the awful choice given is either smother your child or you all die.

Horrible scenario, I know, and I don’t want to know what I’d do in that situation either way. Logically I’d say morality demands the life of the child; it’ll be taken either way, and doing it sooner rather than later saves a village of people and children. BUT IT”S MY CHILD. I got tears just listening to them describe the scenario.

Now, when they put people under the scanner and ask this question they see a battle between those two areas; and there’s no clear-cut winner as in the above trolley case. People come down 50/50.

The implications for morality are interesting to me. I have to wonder which part of the brain tells some homosexuality is wrong, and which tells others it’s not ;-). (I know it’s not that simple :-))

Running the senarios in my head I've also concluded that I could throw the switch but not push the individual, but I would sacrifice myself - I mean if we are talking size wise then I definately fit the bill. :-)

I said no arguing with the hypothetical! :-) This is the biggest man ever and you’re at the healthy weight you’ll be at next year!

Yudanashi said...

Wow, So what does it say about me if I would flip the switch and push the man. As I was reading this I was shocked by your statement following the second problem and how you couldn't push the man. What does this say about me and my thought process? Am I a cold hearted logic machine?

Scot said...

"What does this say about me and my thought process? Am I a cold hearted logic machine?"

Nah. I think it's right to both flip the switch and push the man. It's just that our brains seems to have a more primitive moral reasoning areas that stop most people from the second act. That's just on average, though, and I think it's a good sign if a person can use reason to overide "the inner chimp", as they call it :-).

I'd recommend listening to the radio program linked to there; it's one of my favorites of Radio Lab.