Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Built-in Morality

In this month's Discover magazine, there's a fascinating interview, by Josie Glausiusz, with Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, whose theory of evolution says we are hardwired to know right from wrong.

True or not, Hauser makes his case using some very thought-provoking examples, one of which is something like this: You are standing on a corner when a trolley, out-of-control, roars past. In its path are five people who will be killed (and assume they can't get out of the way). There's a switch that you can reach and thereby divert the streetcar onto a siding; however, so doing will cause it to hit a single person there and s/he will die.

The question is, Is it it morally permissible for you to throw the switch?

Most people say yes. To save five at the cost of one is reasonable.

But then Hauser goes on: There are five people in a hospital who need different organ transplants right now or they will die. A man walks into the hospital, he's healthy, and just happens to be a perfect match to all the people about to die. Is it morally permissable to kill him and harvest his organs to save the others?

Nobody says yes to that one. To which Hauser points out that the end result is the same -- five are saved at the cost of one, and the one is killed by intent. He goes on to say that people of different ages, religious backgrounds, education, and cultures cannot typically explain why they think these are different, but they know that they are. The former choice is not great, but okay; the latter is morally wrong.

He believes that this indicates an innate and unconsicous process that drives moral judgments, and that it not just a socially-educated call.

Another example involves posing a question that puts a familiar situation in a different light, using a way-out example, from an MIT philosopher, Judy Thomson:

A woman wakes up and finds a strange man lying in bed next to her. A second man comes in and says to her, This is a world-famous violinist who is dying of kidney disease. I hope you don't mind, but we've plugged him into your kidney, and if you allow him to stay plugged in for the next nine months, you will save him.

Nobody goes for that one as being morally permissable no matter how famous the guy might be. However, if the woman agrees, even though she's not obligated to do so, but then decides a couple of months later that having his guy hooked to her is a real drag and unplugs him, people asked feel that this is somehow not quite as right on her part, and it doesn't seem to matter if they are pro-life or pro-choice, when the question is phrased this way. Either way the guy dies, and in the latter case, lives a couple months longer than he would have otherwise, but somehow, that doesn't seem to make it sound better to most people.

If you happen across the May issue of Discover, you might want to pick it up. There are also pieces on suspended animation, keeping one's brain working properly while aging, and Dark Matter.

1 comment:

Steve Perry said...

The trick, by the way, with giving these kind of morality quizzes, is in how you phrase the question.

If you said, Is it okay to kill somebody to save five other people? Most folks would say no. You might make the choice to do it, but the morality would be hinky.

So the trolley car question is kind of a shuck, in that it doesn't ask you to kill, it asks you to *save* folks, and the poor sod on the siding dies, but it's not like you *wanted* to do that, you *had* to.

Does the end justify the means? Only some of the time.

If you qualified it like this, you get a different response: The five people trapped on the tracks are thieves, muggers, and trailer trash who just beat-up an old lady and robbed a market; whereas the one person on the siding is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and is working on a cure for cancer.

Now -- would you save those five by killing him?

Most people weigh such factors. Some lives, they believe, are worth more than others. I agree with this.