Monday, January 28, 2008

"Moral Sense" with Michael5000

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large. The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.

Moral puzzles like this have been of increasing interest lately not only in the field of ethics, but in neurobiology as well. Scientists watch images of brain activity in people who are pondering this kind of issue to see what they can learn about the biological basis of the human conscience.

You know me: I'm always trying to help. So, here's my contribution to the field of moral intelligence.

The boat is sinking!

There is but one life raft, and you are the only one with the maritime skills and experience to make survival on the open seas possible. Regrettably, the life raft can only hold three people and there are four of you on the sinking boat: you, and three other passengers.

Which two will you save, and which one's terrified screams, pleading, and whimpers, still somehow audible over the storm as you row away from the sinking hulk into the night, will forever afterwards haunt your sleep?

Passenger #1 - A pleasant, slightly overweight man of thirty-five, friendly, conservative, and forgetful, a construction worker for a commercial contracting company. If he survives the current crisis, he will only live two more years. During that time, he will have four girlfriends, all of whom he will unwittingly infect with a sexually transmitted disease that will render them sterile and eventually, in their old age, blind. One of the four sometimes cheats on him with another man, and will infect him with the disease; this man, who is quite promiscuous, will in turn infect an additional 31 women.

Your passenger will die (in two years, as I mentioned) by falling six stories off of scaffolding onto a busy street. He will land on and crush a small dog, the only companion of a lonely old woman, who will subsequently slip into a depression that will last until her death seven years later. A promising young athlete who sees him fall will develop a post-traumatic disorder and lose his interest in basketball; where he would have had a stellar career, entertaining millions, commanding an enormous salary, and becoming a highly visible spokesperson on issues of social justice, he instead has a religious conversion, goes to seminary, and becomes a much loved small-town pastor, remembered for decades as a man who provided comfort, support, and guidance to three generations of parishioners. Finally, a bus driver who sees your passenger plunge to his death will, in the aftermath of the incident, decide to go back to school and study medicine; she will have a solid but undistinguished career as a urologist. She will not, therefore, be driving during a freak April blizzard two years later. In this storm, she would have lost control of her bus and plunged off of a bridge into a railyard, an accident in which she and 23 bus passengers would have perished, as well as 156 passengers on a passenger train which could not have stopped in time to avoid the fallen bus lying across the tracks.

Passenger #2 - A beautiful little girl of twelve, cheerful, polite, and sweet, an honor student and piano prodigy. If she lives, she will go on to win a prestigious youth piano competition at sixteen; the second-place contestant, unhinged by the competition, will go on a shooting rampage at his school, killing nine before turning his gun on himself. In the aftermath of this event, school districts all over the country will divert funds from classroom education to school security.

In college, your young passenger will study biochemistry; when she is 35, she will isolate a compound that will add an average of three years to the human lifespan; in two of those added years, on average, people will be active and in good health, but in the third year, must people will be confined to their bed and beset by fatigue and mild chronic pain. Her first husband will die after two years of marriage in a car accident; afterwards, she will go through many brief and unsatisfying relationships without ever really feeling "in love" again. She will be unintentionally cold and aloof towards her daughter, who reminds her of her late husband; however, her heart will be broken again when the daughter, at age 16, runs away with a banker in his 40s and refuses to reestablish contact thereafter. Famous as a scientist for her great breakthrough, she will nevertheless gradually lose the respect of her peers when she fails to produce any further work of significance; most members of the general public will assume she died long ago. She will live to be 96, spending her final three decades battling poverty, alcoholism, and increasing ill health.

Passenger #3 - A leering, arrogant man of 60, argumentative, condescending, and openly racist, who describes himself as a "soldier of fortune." He is, in fact, a hired killer; he has committed more than twenty murders for money, in addition to six which he has committed for his own enjoyment. If he lives, he will commit one more murder, after which he will be caught, tried, and sentenced to death. In prison, he will be successfully treated for acute schizophrenia, find religion, and become sincerely repentant and remorseful for the pain he has caused; after three years, he will be executed.

That one man he will murder if he survives the current crisis is one of the world's preeminent brain surgeons, who at the time of his potential murder is scheduled to remove a tumor from the brain of an Eastern European dictator. Without the operation, the dictator will die, and therefore will not implement a plan of ethnic cleansing in which 450,000 will be relocated and impoverished and 32,000 will die; among the dead will be a little boy who would otherwise have grown to be the universally-recognized greatest painter of the century, twin sisters who would have won the Eurovision Song Contest at age 17, and a young man who would have eventually lead a successful campaign to have the World Cup held every three years, instead of every four.

Who do you save? Discuss.
(Or don't.)


Karin said...

Throw the little girl over.

Her life creates more suffering than goodness. Whereas, the death of the others ultimately creates more suffering than goodness. There's just not enough benefit from her life.

I could say more and perhaps I will later after others have weighed in.

The girl's gotta go.

Chance said...

I'm killing whoever invented the Chapman Stick.

d said...

i'm killing all of them because i'm the only one that really matters. i'm putting food and supplies in the raft and rowing for the nearest deserted island where i can live out the rest of my life in peace and quiet unbothered by the tides of humanity.

Cartophiliac said...

I refuse to play those kind of games. I didn't even read the descriptions of the other passengers.

Instead, I refuse to accept the premise, that only three of the four of us could be saved. I think with the brain power of these four human beings, we could figure out a way. For instance, each of us could take turns swimming outside the boat, and take our chances with the sharks...

Anonymous said...

As I wouldn't know the future, and hence I would not be privy to the vignettes described, I would choose the younger two. The arrogant racist's pleas would not bother me for long.

Karin said...

D'oh! Cartophiliac: you remind me to think outside the box! Thank you!

Michael5000 said...

@Chance: That would be Mr. Chapman, if memory serves.

@d: Aw, you would not, ya big softy.

@carto: Well, this particular game is, at least in intent, a parody of "those kind of games." But I have to point out, millenia of real word experience with the genre of sinking-ship problems make it pretty clear that collective brainpower can't do much to compensate for an insufficient lifeboat.

@karma: But you DO know the future. I just told you!

@karin: Nah, your first approach was better. Cartophiliac thought outside the box, and the sharks got him.

Anonymous said...

We're going to toss the old racist killer overboard and have a nice, pleasant voyage. I'll explain what I know about him and his future so the other passengers are as little scarred by the incident as possible. As a preeminent spokeswoman on maritime safety following our safe arrival in Honolulu, I will cultivate the friendship and trust of the preeminent brain surgeon, so he will heed my plea not to save the life of the terrible terrible dictator. Failing that, I will fight indefatigably against his terrible terrible regime. Without divulging what I know about my surviving boatmates' alleged futures, I'll anonymously mail the construction worker pamphlets about safe sex, and try to encourage my young pianist friend to cut down the practice times a bit in favor of a well-balanced life. And also, I'd see a shrink about my delusions of oracular powers.

Rebel said...

My comment didn't post... but I agree with cartophilliac. In real life one often needs to think outside the box (or raft) to come up with a real solution.

I heard a real moral dilema on the radio this morning. There is a single mother who has been steal groceries from her place of employment in order to take care of her family. A coworker has found out about the stealing. Should the coworker tell the boss thus insuring that the single mom gets fired & lead her to a potentially more dire situation?

Dan Nolan said...

I have to ditto karmasartre. You didn't tell us the future because you're not on the boat. And if you're suggesting that you've told me the future prior to me getting into this scenario, then I would take the necessary steps to prevent this boat scenario from taking place, and do my best to prevent the horrors of this presumably certain future from taking place in some other way than to knowingly get on this boat with them and then have to assassinate one of them by letting him or her drown.

Michael5000 said...

These responses are SO interesting. Naturally, I'm a little bummed as an, er, "blog artist" that no one seems to think it's FUNNY. I had a hell of a lot of fun constructing it, so I guess that's one of us. Ah well, try again tomorrow.

The problem that I wrote, if you take it literally, is a black-box puzzle. It presents a finite field of information, and demands one of three conventional choices (save 1&2, save 1&3, or save 2&3) or one of five unconventional choices that are allowable within its framework (save 1, save 2, save 3, save none and row to the island (like d), or go down with the ship yourself). To look for other solutions -- to "think outside the box" -- is basically to punt; in other words, it is to write a new problem to replace the one you don't like. You can't really think outside a black box; nothing gets in, and nothing gets out. That's also why you can't complain, within the context of the puzzle, that it's unrealistic to know the future, or only to know the future at a given moment. Again, that knowledge is inherent to the problem; to change it is to write a different, more comfortable problem.

That there is such an overwhelming impulse to reject the problem as I wrote it is consistent with what those neurobiologists I mentioned seem to be finding. As I understand it, there are consistent patterns of brain activity that happen when a human is confronted with a set of choices that set up moral decisions pitting the welfare of individuals against the welfare of groups. Those choices are viscerally uncomfortable, because we seem to be at a very innate level highly averse to causing each other harm. We are apparently pretty hard-wired to play nice. To overcome this, per Rodgers and Hammerstein, "You have to be taught, before it's to late, you have to be carefully taught."


1 - Humans aren't as bad as people say,
2 - Sorry if you found this post distasteful on either a innate or conscious level, and,
3 - Thanks for reading and commenting. I feel incredibly lucky that so many of you actually read this stuff.

fingerstothebone said...

But you forgot that Passenger #2, who grows up to study biochem, finds a cure for the STD that Passenger #1 has, along with a cure for depression. And her daughter, who runs off with the older guy (who turns out to be the Bill Gates of his generation), establishes a foundation to fund classroom education world wide, lifting billions of people out of poverty and servitude.

And the person who was to hire Passenger #3 to kill the surgeon hires someone else instead, and the surgeon is murdered without the help of Passenger #3. Dictator dies just the same and millions are saved.

So my pick — same as Mrs. 5000's — toss the racist overboard and have ourselves a nice a little trip to some tropical paradise, where Passenger #2, in an accident quite unforeseen by you or me, cuts her hands badly trying to open up a coconut, never plays the piano. And Passenger #1 falls in love with a native beauty and marries her, and who, miraculously, is genetically resistant to the STD he's carrying.

Rebel said...

Your scenerios were kinda funny... but they also started to sound like math... ;)

I do enjoy a good philosophical puzzle, but the problem with research like this is that humanity does not exist in a black box, so whatever the findings are, you have to question how generalizable they will be.

People are notoriously poor self-reporters. We're just not very good at predicting what we actually would or would not do in a given situation. Which is why I think polls are stupid... but that's a whole 'nother issue!

fingerstothebone said...

Just in time for your moral considerations, in today's NYT — should a murderer be allowed to practice medicine —

Dan Nolan said...

Didn't mean to cop out of the question - I didn't realize that the description of the passengers' future was absolute truth that was imparted to me in full only at the time of the ship's sinking. I now assume that nothing I can say to them about their future will alter any of that future (I'm under some sort of gag order). If this is the scenario, then clearly the girl's got to go. And if she really is polite and sweet, she won't torment me with her screams.

Chance said...


I did recognize and appreciate it immediately as satire (thus my fluff answer). Sorry I didn't remark on the work you put into it or its humor. I'm a philosophy major (back in '94) with a concentration in ethics and i wrote my thesis on utilitarianism, so I didn't even blink at the reductio ad absurdium nature of the piece. Yeah, moral questions, kill the old man and save the nuns, nuns go on to save baby Hitler, Hitler is actually a safer choice than the hypothetical dictator who would rise in his stead, blah blah blah. It's all just too ingrained.

Anyway, funny stuff. Yes. Good job.

Anonymous said...

I listened to a podcast about this. They were finding the moral part of the brain. Very interesting. I remember the change between pushing the man and using a lever made a huge difference in the answers.

In any event I would choose to leave the killer. More lives saved in the end and really the first guy has some good booty and the girl likely will have added something to the world.

That you took the time to construct the future is amazing. I never read a moral dilemma like that. They are usually blank fields.

The one thing about the pushing that the scientists did not discuss and that I remember distinctly as another very plausible reason for not wanting to physically push the man was the variable of the man. He could grab you too, or he could be quite mushy or very difficult to push. There are women who would kill for dresses, they would let people die so as not to ruin them certainly. Scientists never take the girly girl quotient into account.

G said...

I would save:

Passenger #2. She won't take up too much space. And anyway, her fate is no different from that of many of the elderly in the US; 'tis better to have loved and lost, right?

Passenger #3. His survival, though distasteful in the short run (i.e., the time shared with him in the raft) has the best benefits, IMHO. After all, it is universally acknowledged that the World Cup is far too infrequent.

...Passenger #1 I would eat.

Bridget said...

I haven't read any of the answers yet - I've been far too busy trying to redesign the Oregon Flag - but my first impulse is to say, "Who made me God? Why should I decide? Since I have the vaguely described 'maritime skills' why don't I stay behind and make some kind of raft from random boat parts and let those folks duke it out? And if I survive, what sort of impact will I have?" In short, I'd say, "Let's all draw straws and let fate sort it out."

Or I'd just toss Passenger #3 to the sharks.

It's a tough call.

Bridget said...

Ok, went back and read the answers - very interesting. (Perhaps we all heard the same NPR broadcast?) And yes, my first impulse: go outside the box in order to avoid the problem in the first place. I was also very delighted by Mrs.5000's and FingersToTheBone's scenarios . . . I wanted to detach and avoid the conflict entirely; they wanted to be proactive problem-solvers. Very interesting . . .