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:
- 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?
- 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…
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?