The Moral Instinct

There is scientific evidence that evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses.Β 

So states the sub-heading of an excellent article on ‘the moral instinct’ in this weekends Sydney Morning Herald (Page 26/27 of the Spectrum section) written by Steven Pinker. This article originally appeared in The New York Times on 13 Jan 08, here is the link, recommended reading for all.

The essay starts off by asking:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug?

Before reading the article, who do you think is the most admirable?

The article also discusses “the trolley problem” (a trolley is a railborne (track) vehicle, lighter than a train, designed for the transport of passengers).

Imagine you are standing at a fork in the track and a trolley is hurtling down the track out of control. There are 5 workers on the main track oblivious to the danger. You can pull a lever that will divert the trolley to the side track, saving the five workers. However, the trolley would then run over a single worker labouring on the side track. Is it permissible to pull the lever killing one man but saving five others?

What would be your answer?

The article then discusses this moral dilemma further by postulating a slightly different scenario.

Consider the previous scenario, but you are now on a bridge overlooking the track. You realise if you throw a heavy object in front of the trolley you will save all the workers. However the only heavy object within reach is a fat man. Should you throw the man off the bridge?

What would be your answer to that dilemma?

The rest of the article discusses humans innate moral sense, and postulates reasons for altruism and fairness. Please read this excellent article and then, if you like, you can discuss it here.

 

 

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15 Comments

Filed under atheism, atheist, evolution, moral dilemma, morals, Steven Pinker

15 responses to “The Moral Instinct

  1. Oz,

    Thanks for the link. I hope to read the article in full and comment πŸ™‚

  2. arthurvandelay

    Re: the Trolley Problem

    I admit not having given this a lot of thought, but my intuitive response would be that given by Mr Spock in Star Trek II–The Wrath of Khan: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Since there is no way to prevent at least one person dying, I’d flip the switch, causing the least amount of suffering/damage (while obviously still causing damage).

    As regards the “Fat Man” scenario, I like the argument offered by Judith Jarvis Thomson (via the Wikipedia article on the Trolley Problem), who came up the scenario. For Thomson: “in the first case, nobody has any more right than anyone else not to be run over, but in the second case, the fat man has a right not to be pushed in front of the trolley.”

  3. I read this article when it first came out in the NY Times. Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

    What I find uncomfortable in sifting through morality is the tension between motivation and consequences. I would probably flip the switch to divert the train, but the deaths that did happen would be a direct consequence of my action, and that would make it all the more psychologically devastating, even though the motivation was ‘good.’

  4. I’ve held for a while that that morality is, at least in part, a product of an evolutionary type system.
    Think about it…
    Early on we had primitive human-ancestor tribes, loose groups in the same area more or less. Usually they were semi-nomadic to full on wanderers. They did generally not have an easy life style and mortality rates would have been pretty high.

    Quite simply, those groups that learned to work together, share their resources and talents for the overall benefit of the group would have had much better survival rates and gone on to bred and prosper. Those that didn’t co-operate with each other would have experienced hardships and death at a greater rate and their reproduction rates would have been considerably less.

  5. Thanks for the link arthur, the additional trolley dilemma and the others sure make you think.

  6. I consider it immoral not to pull a lever in the first example. It is the same as killing four people.

    While the second appears different I believe the moral action is the same. Kill one to save five. Thomson’s justification is flimsy. The fat man has no more right not to be killed than the people on the track. Both the fat man and people on the track did nothing to deserve their fate.

  7. Saved Sinner 2

    I am not sure what I would do until the situation actually arises, like any situation its easier to say what you would do, but actually doing it as a different story.

    After saying that I would like to make a note, and boring from a statement from the notorious thinker AV πŸ™‚

    the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Since there is no way to prevent at least one person dying, I’d flip the switch, causing the least amount of suffering/damage (while obviously still causing damage).

    CONSIDER THIS:

    Though I understand that this is only a test to represent a moral dilemma, I wonder if using the thought process of what would cause the least amount of suffering/damage and deciding to flip th switch would hold true with this one additional variable:

    The five workers are saved, but one of the five is a disgruntled worker. He hates how he has been treated at work, so he was planning at the end of the day to go on a shooting spree at the workhouse killing 20 other employees.

    So, do we do nothing? or react anyway with the assumption that everyone involved are decent people? I guess that truly defines a dilemma πŸ˜‰

    As for the fat man he was probable going to jump anyway, so why not help him along and so it wouldn’t be in vain. ( just kidding, a little of colored humor )

  8. Saved Sinner 2

    I am not sure what I would do until the situation actually arises, like any situation its easier to say what you would do, but actually doing it as a different story.

    After saying that I would like to make a note, and boring from a statement from the notorious thinker AV πŸ™‚

    the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Since there is no way to prevent at least one person dying, I’d flip the switch, causing the least amount of suffering/damage (while obviously still causing damage).

    CONSIDER THIS:

    Though I understand that this is only a test to represent a moral dilemma, I wonder if using the thought process of what would cause the least amount of suffering/damage and deciding to flip th switch would hold true with this one additional variable:

    The five workers are saved, but one of the five is a disgruntled worker. He hates how he has been treated at work, so he was planning at the end of the day to go on a shooting spree at the workhouse killing 20 other employees.

    So, do we do nothing? or react anyway with the assumption that everyone involved are decent people? I guess that truly defines a dilemma πŸ˜‰

    As for the fat man he was probable going to jump anyway, so why not help him along and so it wouldn’t be in vain. ( just kidding, a little off colored humor )

  9. AV

    The five workers are saved, but one of the five is a disgruntled worker. He hates how he has been treated at work, so he was planning at the end of the day to go on a shooting spree at the workhouse killing 20 other employees.

    So, do we do nothing? or react anyway with the assumption that everyone involved are decent people? I guess that truly defines a dilemma πŸ˜‰

    If you know in advance what he plans to do, you can take steps to prevent his shooting spree. If you don’t know in advance what he plans to do, you’re basically back at the first scenario.

    Either way, I’d flip the switch.

  10. SS2, your additional variable reminds me of another dilemma doing the rounds a few years ago. I can’t remember the full text, but basically you were asked to save only 1 of 3 boys. There was a brief outline of what each boy had done in their life so far, but you weren’t given their names until you chose. Most people picked the same boy, who turned out to be Hitler! (the other two were people like Einstein and Lincoln)

    It’s very hard to determine what someone ‘might’ do.

    Though I’m sure in SS2’s scenario you would feel even more remorse when you found out later about the killing spree, it wouldn’t actually be your fault.

  11. Cricket tragic

    I find the idea of making moral judgements on who is ‘worthy’ somewhat repugnant. I believe that the advanced thinker would understand that no one has this right, or the full information to do so. Do not make moral judgements about how I have lived my life as you have not lived it and cannot possibly understand my motivations and the full and colourful history that is mine alone.

    By all means in these simple and unrealistic scenarios it is difficult to use any ethical framework other than that of utilitarianism, that is, maximising happiness, or killing as few people as possible. But choosing who dies on the basis of some sort of moral worth is fundamentally obscene.

  12. @Cricket Tragic,

    I think I understand where you are coming from. But I think it invaluable that we sit an examine the moral choices we make that we develop a good moral compass. There may be no right answer to these dilemas, but there is value in examining yourself and your motivations.

    In life we are sometimes left with decisions that have no right answer or no outcome that benefits everyone.

    Are you saying the exercise has no worth? I would hope that our leaders would undertake some sort of moral reflection in their decision making.

  13. Cricket tragic

    Yes Sean, I guess I am saying that I think this exercise has little worth. I was presented with these exact scenarios when studying ethics at postgraduate level a couple of years ago and I don’t believe they have enough reality to be valuable.

    Of course our leaders should be engaging in moral reflection in formulating policy and legislation. Otherwise government would have little value and we could all rely on market forces alone to meet everyone’s needs in society. Obviously this cannot work for all people and those who cannot survive in such a system require protection and assistance to live a decent standard of life. But this does not amount to making a moral decision about individuals and whether they are worthy of being saved by the sacrifice of others less worthy. The moral decision making required of our leaders does not amount to an either / or, but should attempt to allow everyone to enjoy a basic, decent standard of life. That is, social inclusion for all.

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