Sunday, January 13, 2008
Of Morals and Heavens
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.Steven Pinker has a long article on the nature and origin of the "moral sense" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. This intuitive reaction to life is a bone of contention between secularists and theists but whatever its origin, the mechanics of moral calculation is fascinating.
- Immanuel Kant
Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it's an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in "I Hate Gates" Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?Well, Borlaug is widely considered to be the father of the "Green Revolution" and may have saved a billion people from starvation and disease. Gates has set about giving away much of his fortune in ways that may be the most effective yet for really changing poor persons' lives. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, has been accused of offering the sick in her missions few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care in furtherance of what she saw as the virtue of suffering.
It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks. Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?).Pinker observes that moral judgments are different than other opinions we arrive at:
Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral ("killing is wrong"), rather than merely disagreeable ("I hate brussels sprouts"), unfashionable ("bell-bottoms are out") or imprudent ("don't scratch mosquito bites").One important question is whether we reach our moral judgments by reason or merely rationalize them after the fact. If you think it is easy, take these examples:
The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. ...
The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to "let them get away with it." People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, "The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell."
We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause.
Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?Or consider this pair of problems:
A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn't want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.
A family's dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog's body and cook it and eat it for dinner.
[Y]ou see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur.Is it moral to throw the switch and is it moral to throw the fat man in front of the trolley? Both have the same "outcome," five lives are saved at the cost of one life, but are they moral equivalents?
You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you.
There is much more in the article to ponder, no matter which side you take on the origin of morality. It's well worth reading.
Just be warned that Pinker has more than a few large axes to grind in that debate and his characterization of the blank slate side, as in his book, The Blank Slate, is to be taken with an ocean or two of salt.
More than half the people put up their hands to say that they would throw the switch in the first case but only one (me) put up their hand to say they would throw the big man off the bridge.
In fairness, I have thought about the questions many times.
While I know that it's the "right" thing to do to toss the big man in front of the trolley car, I doubt that I would actually do it. The reason is not because it's unethical, it's because most people would not see it that way and I would not be universally admired for committing murder. I could even end up in prison. You can't get in trouble by doing nothing in that case.
There's one little complication in the second scenario. I happen to be a big man. If the other big man is a philosopher ....
The article's explanation for the disconnect is:
Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up the lives saved and lost. The impulse against roughing up a fellow human would explain other examples in which people abjure killing one to save many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his organs and save five dying patients in need of transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded lifeboat to keep it afloat.
Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if the last example got more assent than the others because the famous movie makes the concept more familiar.
In fairness, I have thought about the questions many times.
I don't want to even begin to speculate why. But the article is about the moral sense, which I think is instinctive and/or unconscious, and subject to rational revision.
You can't get in trouble by doing nothing in that case.
But would you feel immoral?
I happen to be a big man. If the other big man is a philosopher ....
Surely it's immoral to pick on defenseless philosophers!
It is apparently true that a picture of a starving child generates more charitable donations than a picture of two starving children. Similarly allowing a person to die (through non-intervention) in your arms is far more upsetting than allowing someone to die in the hospital the other side of town.
All of these factors combine into moral judgements which make immediate murder a crime, but sending 10,000 soldiers to their death (e.g. 'over the top' in the first World War) was considered justified at the time.
Although these factors may well be evolutionarily determined, they do tend to be modified by culture and circumstance. Just as well really.
I get this image of Larry and John Wilkins standing on the overpass, and as the trolley hurtles down the tracks, Wilkins is arguing on deontist grounds that Larry has a duty to jump off and stop it.
Thinking quickly, Larry distracts Wilkins by calling him an atheist. As Wilkins begins to sputter in protest, Larry pushes him off ;-).
But by that point, they've wasted so much time the trolley has already gone by and, instead, John lands on a wandering group of government education officials, breaking his fall without putting anyone at all worthwhile at risk.
As we can deduce from the article, that's just the brain lesion talking...