13 January 2008

Flip That Switch?

Would you sacrifice the life of one person to save five? Are you sure?

There was an interesting article by Steven Pinker in today's New York Times Magazine about the psychology of morality. How does morality work? Is it universal? Can it be prioritized? What is the biology behind it? These are some of the questions that are extensively discussed.

The most fascinating part of the story was a discussion of the morality thought-experiment known as the Trolley Problem. A trolley is speeding down the tracks with the conductor slumped over the controls, heading directly for five railway workers who don't see it coming, and can't get out of the way. If the trolley hits them, they will all be killed. You are standing by the tracks near a switch. You can flip the switch - sending the trolley onto a sidetrack where only one person is working, and only one will be killed. Nearly everyone who is given this problem chooses to flip the switch, sacrificing one person to save five.

In the second part of the problem the circumstances are nearly the same. The trolley is again racing out of control down the tracks headed for the five workers. This time you are standing on a bridge above the track. The only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object from the bridge down onto the tracks. The only heavy object nearby is the 300 pound man standing next to you. Do you push your neighbor off the bridge, killing him but saving the five workers? Nearly everyone who is given this problem chooses NOT to push anyone from the bridge.

The equation is the same in both cases - sacrifice one to save five. So why don't people push the man from the bridge? Is there something within us that is repulsed by the physicality involved in the second problem?

It appears that the moral compass within us is telling us that there is something wrong with the second problem. Indeed, functional MRI scans show us that different parts of the brain are working with each problem. In the problem involving the switch, only areas of the brain involving rational calculations were working. In the hands-on problem, areas of the brain concerning emotions were active.

After thinking about these scenarios for awhile, you may be inclined to force yourself into a "rational" way of making these decisions - discount the emotional completely. I disagree. The emotional response people give in not being able to throw the man from the bridge is a real human response - perfectly valid, perhaps evolutionary, perhaps necessary. I therefore think that all 200,000 people that participated in this thought experiment gave the correct answer to each scenario.

Of course in our everyday lives, problems don't come at us like trolley cars. And people aren't necessarily killed, or even injured. But the real challenge for us is to see clearly which kind of problem we are facing.

Sometimes heaving a man off a bridge can be presented to us as just "flipping a switch".

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