Do We Want Our Moral Intuitions to be Rational?

Moral Psychology, part 1

There’s a one-man show now playing in London, called “The Majority.” The writer and performer, Rob Drummond, asks the audience to vote on a variety of ethical questions. The audience members on the way in are issued an electronic keypad and are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the series of propositions prompted by the narrative. The tally is instantly displayed. The show itself, or so we are told, can go in different directions depending on how the audience votes.

I haven’t seen the show – because, it’s in London. I read about it in an article by Sophie Gilbert (HERE). The night she was there, when the question was, "Do you believe in absolute freedom of speech?" 61.7 percent said no. "Is violence sometimes the answer?" 51.2 percent no.

Then Drummond presents the Trolley problem, a scenario familiar to me from my years of trying to engage undergraduates to think about morality. Suppose you are standing on a platform and you see below you a runaway trolley headed for five people who have no chance of getting out of the way. They’ll all be killed! However, you just happen to be standing next to a lever which, due to your familiarity with that trolley station, you know will redirect the trolley onto a side track. Just as you reach for the lever, you notice that the side track has one person there who likewise has no chance to get out of the way. If you pull the lever, he’ll be killed. Do you pull the lever to kill one person, or let fate take its course, killing five?

The night Sophie Gilbert attended “The Majority,” 70.9 percent of the audience said they would pull the lever to sidetrack the trolley to kill one person rather than not act and let five people die. Then Rob Drummond asked his audience: suppose there were no lever, but a very large man was standing next to you peering over the edge of the platform. You could push him off, onto the path of the trolley. He’d be killed, but his large body would stop the trolley or slow it enough for the five to get to safety. Morally, isn’t it that the same? Kill one to save five? And yet 71.1 percent said they would not push the large man off – almost exactly the same percentage that would pull the lever the first time.

More scientific surveys of the US population show an even wider gulf between willingness to pull the lever and willingness to push someone to their death. About 90 percent of us say we would pull the lever, while about 90 percent of us say we would not push the large man. (Sarah Bakewell, New York Times)

I get where people are coming from – my moral intuitions were shaped by a socialization very similar to theirs. But are our intuitions rational and reasonable? Do we want our moral intuitions to be rational?

Sometimes our moral intuitions seem hard to justify. First, is it really OK to kill one to save five? Second, if killing one to save five is OK, then why is doing it by pulling a lever different from doing it by pushing someone to their death?

On the first question: people who say they would not pull the lever say they can’t play God, deciding who lives and who dies. They couldn’t live with the fact that their direct action killed a person – though they can live with their inaction killing five. (Interestingly, studies show a gender difference here – women are less likely to pull the lever.) By doing nothing, the responsibility is on whoever let that trolley get out of control, but by pulling the lever, you take direct responsibility for killing the one person. But aren’t you just as responsible for your decisions not to act as you are for a decision to act?

Let's look at that question: are you just as responsible for your voluntary inaction as you are for your voluntary action? Consider this: for $5.00 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation, one mosquito net could have been provided to areas of Africa at highest risk of malaria. A million people a year die of malaria, mostly children under age 5, and 90 percent of the malaria cases occur in sub-saharan Africa. For five bucks, you could have saved one of them. Well, maybe: some people with the nets get malaria anyway, and some people without the nets manage not to get it, or they do get it but recover, so there’s not a one-to-one relationship between nets provided and lives saved. But if you buy, say, ten nets, there’s a really good chance that one of the ten recipients will be a person who otherwise would have died of malaria, but thanks to the mosquito net you provided, doesn’t. So, call it 50 bucks to save one life. But you didn’t send the Against Malaria Foundation $50, did you? I didn’t either. And even if you did, you could have sent $50 more, but you didn’t. And that inaction cost a life.

Compare that to a different case. You get an email from Africa, but instead of saying that they need your assistance to get $20 million dollars out of Senegalese bank account, it says:
“I’m a farmer and I really hate my neighbor. I want to kill him. I went to our local shaman, and he said, it’s OK for me to kill my neighbor but only if I could get an American Unitarian Universalist to say it was OK. If I send you $50, will you send me an email that simply says, ‘You may kill your neighbor.’”
You would probably say, “that’s really weird,” hit delete, and go on with your day. But what would you think of someone -- let's call her Sue -- who replied, “let’s see the $50”? Suppose the check arrives; Sue deposits it; it clears. And Sue then keeps her end of the bargain: she sends an email saying, “You may kill your neighbor” -- and suppose the guy in Africa kills his neighbor. How does that compare with the malaria situation? Do we not find Sue's action more appalling than the inaction of someone who did not contribute to the Against Malaria Foundation? Yet in both cases, there’s $50 more than there would be in the American’s pocket and there’s a death in a faraway place as a result. So maybe we aren’t as responsible for a decision not to act as we are for a decision to act. Or maybe you'd still want to say that we are.

As these are cases illustrate, our moral intuitions can get stymied. What do -- or should -- we do about that?

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Moral Psychology"
See also
Part 2: Care, Loyalty, Authority, Fairness, Liberty, and Sacredness
Part 3: Reason's Role

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