15 January, 2011

A moral choice: Part 1, the Science

What got me going this time is a debate about what is right and what is wrong. And how people make these decisions. It's from this Radiolab episode:

It has an interesting and not so interesting part. The interesting parts are the ones dealing with this guy's research, which luckily is summarized on his homepage. I'll just go ahead and copy/paste the first problem:

A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You can save these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks, one that has only one person on it, but if you do this that person will be killed. Do you turn the trolley and thus prevent five deaths at the cost of one?  Once again, the trolley is headed for five people. You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge spanning the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and into the path of the trolley.  Do you push the fat man?

What struck me as odd is that there seems to be a consensus. Something like 90% of people answered Yes to the first and No to the second. If you did too, than congratulations you fit in. If not you are a monster and should be put to death. Well not exactly, but you get the point. I have to admit I was confused at both questions, because you do not have enough information: the life of that one man can be infinitely more worth than those of the 5 put together, but who are you to judge that? Anyway, adding such information I guess says more about the one answering the question...

What still leaves me confused is that being right by being consistent, a thing which is believed we do subconsciously, is socially unacceptable. I felt that asking the first question right before asking the second would condition people to realize that the two cases are the same and thus make them give the same answer in order to keep consistency (see the Influence book). Obviously I was wrong. By being right I mean of course doing the rational thing, calculating and killing the 1 to save the 5. That is after all what separates us from animals, right? Our rationality... and we will see what role it plays in the choices that we make (for an alternative take a look at part 2: Freedom). But first let's look at the second dilemma and our options. Here it is:

It's war time, and you are hiding in a basement with several other people.  The enemy soldiers are outside.  Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if nothing is done the soldiers will find you and kill you, your baby, and everyone else in the basement.  The only way to prevent this from happening is to cover your baby's mouth, but if you do this the baby will smother to death.  Do you kill your own baby?

A rational answer (so rational it becomes inhuman) would be: sure, you could always make more; but I am pretty sure I couldn't be able to, already at theoretical level, not to mention the emotional response triggered by holding the little one in your hands. And you should be aware that the emotional response is much stronger than you predict the emotional response to be (see the Predictably Irrational book). On the other hand the cynical point of view is: what do you care if the whole village dies? when you weigh it against your child, there are enough people in the world anyway... 

I don't like these lose, lose questions but apparently we can't help but find them fascinating. The child scene was analyzed in the last episode of M.A.S.H. Very powerful moment (for more on the use of moral choices in media stay tuned for part 3: Entertainment).

Now lets look a bit more at what they did here: What if it was someone else's baby? Specifically, let's take a look at this popular quiz, often found told as a joke (don't know why, maybe people think this is dark humor):

If you knew a woman who was pregnant, and she had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis; would you recommend that she have an abortion?

If you answered yes you just killed Beethoven. (Ignore the fact that this is totally bullshit, meaning the facts are not right, the idea is that you might have killed Beethoven. I think the point here is that it is not for you to decide)

This question often goes together with another:

It is time to elect the world leader, and your vote counts. Here are the facts about the three leading candidates:
  • Candidate A associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's had two mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.
  • Candidate B was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whisky every evening.
  • Candidate C is a decorated war hero. He's a vegetarian, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer and hasn't had any extramarital affairs.
Which of these candidates would be your choice?

    Now for the revealing: Candidate A is Franklin Roosevelt, Candidate B is Winston Churchill, and Candidate C is Adolph Hitler. Anyway, I would say this only proves one thing: Hitler is the man people really want, why do people say he was evil? And you get what you deserve. Or was it more like: careful what you wish... ?

    It's time to be wrapping up, don't you think? Instead of a conclusion we will be looking at the most important question of all: how do we decide? What are our moral choices based on? Is it society, upbringing etc or is it something deeper? something that is in our nature... maybe in our genes or in the place we usually go to look for answers: the brain.

    Remember Joshua Green? Here's what he found: different parts of the brain light up when we do rational choices, compared to those that light up when something more instinctive is involved. For the first question, about 1 guy on the rails vs 5, only the rational parts fire up. However, when the fat guy is concerned, we "know" that it is wrong to push to kill one of our own kind, so the other parts light up more intensely. It is basically a shouting match between different parts of yourself. But what happens in the case of the baby, where they are almost evenly matched? Scientific answer: you "exhibit increased activity in anterior regions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex" (or something like that, just listen to it on the Radiolab episode at the top, it's clearer). You know, the part of the brain that is more developed in humans. This gives it a nudge toward the rational side.

    The distinctly human nature manifesting itself is the one making us kill our own child. And here I was thinking that the highest expression of human nature is a cat giving its life to protect its young.

    PS. I'm sure this cat stuff is paraphrasing some famous quote. And I thought it was from Heinlein, but it seems I can't quite trace it.

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