Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ethics and Emotions

From Wired magazine, here is a bit about basic differences in our views on ethics (absolutist vs consequentialist):
A couple years ago, David Pizarro, a young research psychologist at Cornell, brewed up a devious variation on the classic trolley problem. The trolley problem is that staple of moral psychology studies at dinner parties in which you ask someone to decide under what conditions it’s morally permissible to kill one person to save others. Here, via Wikipedia, is its most basic template:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?
This has generated scores of studies that pose all kinds of variations. (You can take a version of the test yourself at Should You Kill the Fat Man?) Perhaps the richest has been the footbridge problem. The footbridge scenario puts the subject in a more active (hypothetical role): You’re on a footbridge over the trolley track, and next to you, leaning perilously over the rail to see what happens, stands a very large man — a man large enough, in fact, to stop the train. Is it moral to push the guy over the rail to stop the train?

Researchers generally use these scenarios to see whether people hold a) an absolutist or so-called “deontological” moral code or b) a utilitarian or “consequentialist” moral code. In an absolutist code, an act’s morality virtually never depends on context or secondary consequences. A utilitarian code allows that an act’s morality can depend on context and secondary consequences, such as whether taking one life can save two or three or a thousand. In most studies, people start out insisting they have absolute codes.

But when researchers tweak the settings, many people decide it’s relative after all: Say the man is known to be dying, or was contemplating jumping off the bridge anyway — and the passengers are all children — and for some people, that makes it different. Or the guy is a murderer and the passengers nuns. In other scenarios the man might be slipping, and will fall and die if you don’t grab him: Do you save him … even if it means all those kids will die? By tweaking these settings, researchers can squeeze an absolutist pretty hard, but they usually find a mix of absolutists and consequentialists.
Here is a video of David Pizarro discussing the above. This is taken from a page on Edge:

If you go to 12:20 in the above video you get the trolley problem presented but as a "Kill Whitey" version to tease out conservative versus liberal biases and try to understand the role of reason in moral judgements.

Here is an academic paper that formally presents the material discussed in the above video.

The Edge is an interesting site with many thinkers discussing many topics. Here's the Wikipedia page on the Edge.

No comments: