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The basis of moral decisions

March 24, 2009

Best I mention first off – this blog won’t be all about morality, though it may feature from time to time. This blog will meander but is likely to include stuff about economics, science, marketing, social media and communications, as well as things that are, well, just funny, in my opinion. And this – my opinion – will likely feature heavily too (if I know myself).

So with that said, let me get to the subject of this post.  I was discussing recently with a great friend the subject of how we make moral judgments, when I was reminded of a brilliant piece of work last year by a team of neuroscientists in the US.  These scientists were looking for a scientific explanation for moral judgments, and designed an experiment where they measured the brain activity of various subjects while they were asked to make moral decisions.

They posed a classic dilemma: you discover a train is hurtling down a track and will kill five people who are in the train’s path further down the track. In the first scenario, you are offered the choice to pull a lever that makes the train reroute to a different track, where there is one person on the track. In other words, you can act to save five people by killing one. As brutal as it sounds, most people end up agreeing they would pull the lever. The neuroscientists analysed brain activity as people made this calculated judgment.

In the second scenario, you are offered the same choice – to save the five by killing one – but this time you have to push someone under the train, slowing it down so it stops before reaching the five. Most people, when offered this choice, feel that they should not intervene, even though the outcome is identical (in terms of lives saved and lost, anyway).

The experimenters examined which parts of the brain were being used to make this decision, and found one area that came alive with electrical signals when they made the decision whether to push someone under the train.  In other words, in most cases some brain function seems to have overruled our calculated view that one death to save five is better than five to save one.

The quite comforting conclusion is that, while we are able to make calculated moral decisions even where they involve purposefully killing someone, we seem to have evolved to not want to do things like push other people under trains.  Thus backing up my deep optimism towards human nature.

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2 comments

  1. Yes, but your deep optimism may be misplaced. You and I cannot help but feel optimistic when we look at the results of the runaway train because we agree with them. Who’s to say that not pushing someone under the train is the morally correct answer? Humans react this way, but another sentient being may not, and they may feel that they are being moral, and are also optimistic at their species nature :)


  2. The second scenario overlooks the alternative: instead of pushing someone under the train, I push myself



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