Minds and Morals: Preprogramed?

In the spring of 2007, Hubby and I took a course called Minds and Morals through our Osher Institute studies. Professor Bryan Benham told us how recent research from the cognitive sciences and neurosciences are attempting to look at the evolutionary and neural origins of moral decisions and judgements. Some researchers claim we have a “moral faculty” in our brains that automatically identify for us when events are morally relevant, and that this moral faculty constrains the type of moral system we’re able to learn to act on. In other words, it is possible our brains come pre-wired to act in one way or another, having to do in some way with ingrained instincts having more to do with  survival, and less to do with moral values of our upbringing or religious training. Here’s an example from some research studies.

Put yourself, for instance, into this scenario concocted by philosophers Judith Jarvis Thompson and Philippa Foot, and published in Discover, April 2004. What would you do in their setup: 

Imagine you’re at the wheel of a trolley and the brakes have failed. You’re approaching a fork in the track at top speed. On the left side, five rail workers are fixing the track. On the right side, there is a single worker. If you do nothing, the trolley will bear left and kill the five workers. The only way to save five lives is to take the responsibility for changing the trolley’s path by hitting a switch. Then you will kill one worker. What would you do?

Now imagine that you are watching the runaway trolley from a footbridge. This time there is no fork in the track. Instead five workers are on it, facing certain death. But you happen to be standing next to a big man. If you sneak up on him and push him off the footbridge, he will fall to his death. Because he is so big, he will stop the trolley. Do you willfully kill one man, or do you allow five people to die?

I guess my personal feeling would be to do nothing, i.e., let fate take over and see what happens. Maybe something will miraculous will happen without your intervention. But if nothing does interfere and five workers are killed, while you’re not directly responsible, would you still feel guilty? What if the big man is someone you know? Let’s say you not only know the man, but you know he beats his wife and children. I think that would make it easier for me, but by the time all these “what ifs” pass through my mind, it’s probably too late anyhow. If you bump the big man who falls to his own death but saves five others, it will still be your fault that the man died.

Logically both scenarios should result in the same decision, which would be losing only one life is better than losing five. Yet the study shows that most people who’re asked these questions are more willing to throw the switch in the first scene, than are willing to actually push the man in scene two to his death. Why the difference?

In the first story, the fact that you never touch anything more real than a switch, it probably would be easier to make the more obvious moral choice. That is, one life lost in place of five seems the more moral choice. However, in the second story, when it becomes necessary to make the same basic choice, except that in this case you’ll actually have to touch the big man instead of a simple switch, it becomes more difficult to make the same deduction. That makes you feel more directly responsible. But in fact, is one choice more moral than the other, since they both have the same outcome?

This is far too complex a subject for me but the questions are interesting all the same.   

3 thoughts on “Minds and Morals: Preprogramed?

  1. Oh that would be a position I would never want to be in. The first scenario would be something you would instinctively do if you were the conductor … but the 2nd one I would be a bystander and not the one who should make that kind of decision … I think.

  2. Whew…I agree…..far too complex a situation for me to ponder.
    Although, I’m truly a “doer” type person…..I think on this one, I’d have to stand back and do nothing. Allow fate to play out, so to speak. I definitely know I couldn’t push that man. Wouldn’t that be akin to murder? Yup…..very complex.

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