When should we trust our intuitions? (Part 2)


Click picture to see a clip of ‘The Trolley Problem’

Thursday 3rd April 2014

This is a merged post based on the Creative Living enquiry we had earlier in the day and the lunchtime Philosophy discussion.

In the first discussion, students presented the well known ‘trolley problem’ (see the clip above) scenario to elicit responses as to what individuals thought was the right thing to do. The dilemma is usually used to explore the nature of ethical judgment – how we reason through our decisions about the moral situations in which we often find ourselves.  There are two parts to the scenario: first, ‘pulling the lever’ scenario and second, ‘pushing the fat man’ scenario.  The way in which people respond to each is very revealing about how we make moral choices.

In the ‘pulling the lever’ scenario, most people would justify pulling the lever to sacrifice one life to save the five lives.  The ethical theory that explains their reasoning is ‘Utilitarianism’ which explains how people act according to an assessment of the consequences using the ‘greatest happiness principle’ as a guideline – it’s rationally justified to sacrifice the needs of the few for the needs of the many.

In the ‘pushing the fat man’ scenario, many of the people who would have pulled the lever in the first scenario, strangely find themselves refraining from pushing the fat man to save the lives of the five workers.  Why, when it’s still one life that’s been sacrificed?  The answer often given is the notion of ‘intent’: pushing the fat man over the bridge to stop the train feels more like murder than pulling the lever. The ethical theory that explains this line of thinking is ‘Virtue Ethics’ which guides us to explores our moral character in specific moral situations.

Quite often, people also offer explanations for their responses to each scenario by turning to rule based ethics or ‘Deontology’: you act according to universal moral principles or rules which guide your behaviour from the outset. Here are two versions of this:

    1. Divine Command Theory (eg. The Ten Commandments): you refer to the moral rules as decreed by the divine authority of God.  So you would sacrifice neither the one worker, nor the five according to the principle ‘thou shalt not kill’ which guides you in such moral dilemmas. But what happens when God commands you to act against such a principle?
    2. Kantian Categorical Imperative (eg. the golden rule – ‘do unto others…’): you refer to specific rules which encapsulate your duty in a moral situation.  So you would not sacrifice the life of the one worker or five because you reason according to the principle that it is not right to use a person as a means to an end – the end being saving others’ lives.

Now this is quite a brusque treatment of these important and complex ethical theories, but it gives you a flavour of how reason helps us to make moral choices. But it’s only part of the story…


Click picture to read Haidt’s article on Social Intuitionist Theory of morality

Jonathan Haidt argues, however, that such rationalisations of our ethical behaviour come after our initial judgements of what’s right and wrong to do in a moral situation.  His famous thought experiment opens this article, ‘The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail…’.

According to Haidt, our intuitions (or moral emotions) are foremost when faced with ethical dilemmas and they cause our final judgment about what to do. He proposes ‘Social Intuition Theory’ which counters the previous, more traditional and rational theories presented above as a way of explaining ethical decision making.

According to this theory, in each scenario of the trolley problem, individuals have a gut feeling of what’s right or wrong for them (this is the ‘intuition’ part of the theory) and when called upon by others to justify this feeling (this is the ‘social’ part of the theory,) they start to present reasons to support their position which ultimately leads to a judgment.  When push comes to shove, this ends up , as Haidt acknowledges, like the proverbial parent who is (as Madame P-S puts it) reduced to quia by an annoyingly questioning child who keeps asking ‘But why, mummy?’: ‘Well, just because!’

What are the problems of the reason-based ethical theories and the social intuitionist model?

4 Responses to “When should we trust our intuitions? (Part 2)”

  1. PriyaMay 8, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    I think that the problem with reason-based ethical theories is that afterwards, on the pulling lever situation, generally most people, if it was they who had pulled the lever would start to think, was what I did right? Because in one perspective, they basically killed a person. And this may not be because they are thinking rationally, as their reasoning in pulling the lever was argueably the right thing to do, but because their instincts afterwards would kick in and realise and question what really happened and, like I said, have phrases in their mind such as; I killed a man. But then this view of the problem would be more to do with moral-thinking. I hope this makes sense. From Priya

    • trekMay 12, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      Yes Priya – the first part makes sense: we sometimes may doubt the reasoned ethical judgments we make. But the last part about moral thinking needs some explanation. What is the difference between the thinking that we do when applying ethical theories to our dilemmas and the ‘moral thinking’ you mention at the end?

  2. Cornelia SheeranJune 1, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    The scenarios of, ‘pushing the fat man’ and ‘pulling the leaver’, both (if one decides to proceed with the logical approach of the killing of one to save many) end in the murder of one. However, the action of murder is not in question here, but the consequences of the deed are. No one can disagree that the right path to take is to kill the one to save the many, but as soon as the thought of slaughter is allowed to permeate across our mind, the horror of the ethical violation of murder is left to ferment. In a controlled situation we could not think of murder as our only choice, however in a split second decision we cannot hope to have the time to discuss whether it is ‘right’. In this situation there is a fine line between right and wrong. Yet is it truly an ethical violation to kill for the protection of others, when many do it every day (soldiers, policemen/women etc.)?

    Conversely, as soon as we start to complicate our scenario and the ‘protagonist’ of our little stories is allowed to play God, such as knowing the identities of the fat man and the people on the tracks, the now complicated scenario can only serve to tell us the true ethics behind murder, and righteous killing. Though we would feel guilt in both, is what we are doing murder or righteous killing?

    • trekJune 11, 2014 at 3:05 pm #


      You raise some really interesting points here, especially about the idea of ‘righteous killing’. However, the folowing statement is contentious in a variety of contexts: “No one can disagree that the right path to take is to kill the one to save the many…”

      Can you see why?

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