About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, February 05, 2007
Of trolleys and morality
Trolley problems have nothing to do with public transportation, although they do make use of an imaginary trolley. So, consider the following thought experiment: you are gingerly walking about town, minding your own business, when you suddenly see a trolley with no driver proceeding down its tracks. With horror, you realize that if the trolley keeps going that way, it will hit, and likely kill, five innocent bystanders. You look around for something to do. You are too far to alert the five of the imminent danger, but you see nearby a lever. If you pull that lever, the trolley will change course and you will save five lives. Unfortunately, a collateral result of your action will be killing a sixth person, standing near the secondary tracks. What would you do?
Social scientists have actually asked this question to a variety of people across many cultures (in some cases the trolley becomes a shark attacking a canoe, depending on the local customs), and the result is, remarkably, consistently the same: the overwhelming majority of people say that it is a good choice to pull the lever. When asked what their reasoning is they respond that, duh, to save five lives and lose one is better than to save one and lose five. (Image from http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/)
So far so good. But the ingenious moral philosopher comes up with an interesting twist: in a second version of the thought experiment, the situation is exactly the same, except that this time the only way for you to stop the death path of the trolley is to actually push an innocent bystander in front of it, thereby saving the other five. This time the overwhelming majority of people say that no, that would not be morally acceptable. Here's the twist: when asked why, they are at a loss to rationally explain their choice. After all, as in the first case, it's still one life against five.
Clearly, the difference between the two cases is that the first scenario implies a “collateral,” i.e., indirect, casualty, while the second one requires a positive action on the part of the agent. But that difference has to do with human psychology, not with the moral equation, as reflected by the inability of most people to articulate why they would act differently in the second case.
The first broad implication here is that some moral choices may not be rationally defensible. It may still be the case that we should strive toward a rational moral system (as philosophers have been arguing), but in order to get there we might need sometimes to trump people's intuitions of what is moral and what isn't. Not an easy task, to be sure.
Second, the fact that the response to the two trolley situations is cross-cultural may imply that our moral intuitions are deep seated, probably the result of evolution as social animals. This is good news in some sense, because it points to a clear answer to the tiresome question: if you are not religious, where do you get your morality from? As Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, we all (religious and not) get it from the same place: our biology (and our parents). On the other hand, biological instincts developed over millions of years in a social environment quite different, and much simpler, than the modern one, which may explain why we have so much trouble figuring out the answers to the complex moral dilemmas arising in a global village of six billion people.