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I could smother the child. I could not smother the child.
November 25, 2007 1:02 AM   Subscribe

What Makes Us Moral and The Morality Quiz. It's war time, and you're hiding in a basement with a group of other people. Enemy soldiers are approaching outside and will be drawn to any sound. If you're found, you'll all be killed immediately. A baby hiding with you starts to cry loudly and cannot be stopped. Smothering it to death is the only way to silence it, saving the lives of everyone in the room. Assume that the parents of the baby are unknown and not present and there will be no penalty for killing the child. Could you be the one who smothered it if no one else would?
posted by amyms (147 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Took the quiz. Don't think I could do most of those things, even if I knew I should. But that's not so much a positive statement about my moral fortitude as it is evidence that I'm a squeamish chicken.
posted by katillathehun at 1:20 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


After I took the quiz and composed my post, the scenario above started to seem very familiar to me. I seem to remember watching a holocaust movie on television when I was a pre-teen (maybe?), which would have been late 70s or early 80s, with a scene where a group of people were hiding in a large sewer/drainage pathway. The Nazis were approaching and a baby began to cry loudly, and a woman (don't remember if she was the mother) held it under water. It was heart-wrenching, but it was clear that she had done it in order to save the rest of the group... Does that sound familiar to anyone else?
posted by amyms at 1:29 AM on November 25, 2007


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posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:36 AM on November 25, 2007 [9 favorites]


i think for all those scenarios it's impossible to know what you would or wouldn't do. in the comfort of my armchair, i'm all about the utilitarian approach. but until you're actually in a life-and-death situation, unless you countenance such things all the time (like cops or paramedics do), there's no predicting your own response.
posted by Hat Maui at 1:39 AM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


I usually find it depressing to realize what others think constitutes morality. This is one of those depressing cases.

Though at least we have SCIENCE on the job. Hopefully we can domesticate our entire species before anyone asks what the fuck we're doing.
posted by Alex404 at 1:39 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


In a third version of the trolley dilemma, you could throw a switch catapulting him onto the track, thereby not having to touch him as you kill him. Could you do either of these other scenarios?

Um, What? I mean, if you're going to spend your lunch break on a catapult that needs to be launched to save train loads of people, I guess you deserve what's coming.

Anyway, I don't even get how this is a "morality" quiz, there is not any principle in play here, just gut reactions. And the first two problems involve your own life, and most people would probably do whatever it takes to save their own life.
posted by delmoi at 1:43 AM on November 25, 2007


The quiz seems to assume a utilitarian moral framework, and the article even calls the decision not to throw the guy onto the tracks "irrational", as if this were a settled matter. Utilitarianism is popular among people who have read a little philosophy and see it as a "rational" morality, which is of course how the theory advertised itself from the very beginning.

Utilitarianism lives from these examples in the quiz, very artificial examples where the moral decision is reduced to a counting exercise. However, look at any moral decision you have made in your life and chances are the decision will not have revolved around a quantifiable result; you probably faced a conflict of several incommensurable values. Also, political decisions sometimes revolve around a trade-off between freedom and equality, for example, and there's not way you can count the sums of freedom and equality and then compare the numbers.

In the one example, you asked if you would divert a train from the track with five people on it to the track with one person. In this example you are not asked to kill anyone or send anyone to their death; you are asked if you would mitigate the damage that seems already unavoidable. It strikes me that this is not a moral question at all; it is simply a pragmatic question. And then counting is the only relevant mental operation. In the other example, you are asked if you would throw someone onto the track to save the other five; here you are asked to kill someone yourself with your action, and this gives the whole situation a different quality and puts you in a true moral dilemma. It is no longer just counting that is relevant. But the moral quality of the dilemma is obscured if you just focus on the arithmetic similarity between the examples, which is what their juxtaposition is supposed to accomplish.

I also have a bone to pick with the idea that tallying the results of this survey is somehow "scientific research". Psychology began as a discipline with the insight that what people say is not a reliable indicator of what goes on in their psyche; so this modern fetishism for seeing some kind of objectivity in survey results is misguided. What people say when briefly taking some survey is not necessarily the same as what they would do in the situation or what they would say after thinking about it for a few days.

Don't mean to criticize the post so much as the article. I knew it would annoy the shit out of me and it has lived up to its expectations.
posted by creasy boy at 1:54 AM on November 25, 2007 [28 favorites]


Apparently most people won't kill somebody else even when in a situation where that's socially sanctioned or necessary like in war. The injunction "don't kill somebody else" is ingrained just too deeply.
Only by role playing like shooting at man shaped silhouet targets that pop up (or video games I suppose) can this injunction be dulled and circumvented.
That argument is explained in On Killing; The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.
posted by jouke at 1:54 AM on November 25, 2007


There's a book by Michael Moorcock, the title of which escapes me, which has these at the end of every chapter. They certainly were a mindbender to read at age 13.
posted by Kattullus at 2:01 AM on November 25, 2007


I think the first two are the easiest to decide since the people in question (the baby/the injured passenger) are going to die in either outcome. The trolley situations are different though. I don't know what I would do with those situations if I were faced with them, but I wouldn't hesitate in the first two.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 2:02 AM on November 25, 2007


So... it's the last episode of MASH, and... o... wait... IT'S NOT A CHICKEN
posted by teppic at 2:06 AM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't put the terrorist-bomb torture scenario, since they feel the need to list those other dumb utilitarian moral dilemmas.

And does anyone else wonder if these MRI scans of people's moral responses really have any worth? I see them pop up in every article with a vague interest in biology and its relation to any non-science discipline. I see a lot of noxious things like "What goes on in the mind of an artist!" and the more I read them—especially in magazines like Time and Newsweek—the more specious they look to me.
posted by Weebot at 2:07 AM on November 25, 2007


It strikes me that this is not a moral question at all; it is simply a pragmatic question.

I think you're making this out to be simpler than it actually is. By "mitigating the damage" in the example you gave, you're causing the death of someone who otherwise would not die.
posted by me & my monkey at 2:09 AM on November 25, 2007


amyms: yeah that baby dilemma sounded familiar to me too, but I'm not sure where I saw it. I've also read that Harriet Tubman had some sort of drug she used to silence babies on the trips north. I think that's really the most riveting dilemma in that quiz.
posted by creasy boy at 2:11 AM on November 25, 2007


Worthless quiz. All the scenarios are rigged with pre-determined result paths, which is something you would almost never have in real life. Just from the OP's example:All these tests do is remove any creativity for problem solving by giving you end scenarios that you somehow magically know in advance, like the "who do you save if your mother and father are both drowning and you can only reach one in time before the other drowns?" questions. How do you know they'll drown? How do you know you won't be able to administer CPR? You don't.

It's annoying because they turn what would be good, moral decision making processes into something amoral because you now have the moral responsibility that comes with precognition. Stupid, pointless twaddle.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:12 AM on November 25, 2007 [21 favorites]


I agree with creasy boy. The thing that bothers me with moral dilemma scenarios as commonly presented is that we are given yes/no options without room for variations or alternative possibilities. These questions are meant to stimulate discussion, not just to form part of some sort of personality quiz or ratings system. In reality you can do anything your mind and body makes you capable of, and events continue after whatever it was you did is over.

Examples: Render the baby unconscious rather than dead - somewhat more difficult but morally much preferable. Wrap it up in a few layers of blanket - this may not muffle cries, but it has a very high chance of muffling weak watery coughs. With the lifeboats and trolley cars, in some of those cases the quiz-taker could potentially sacrifice themselves rather than another person - a morally preferable option, usually; and nothing in the scenario stops you from calling out warnings wherever possible.

And so on. Headlock the scientist running the pain experiment and tell him to have the subject released right now, or you will drive his own pen through his eye. (And claim afterwards that, just as he was "only pretending" to shock the subject, hey, so were you.) Ignore the damn fool life insurance forms and bust in to the cockpit. Take the captured terrorists into one room and tell them that if any one of them confesses the location of the bomb, all of the surviving ones you have caught will each be given a fortune in cash and let go completely free without charges, provided that, for the rest of their lives, they live peacefully. Then shoot them one by one in front of the group, giving them a bit of time to think about it between each one - and if one confesses, keep your word. The fat man in the hole: knock him out if you can to save him the agony of what you're going to do, two of you take each of his arms, twist him around in the hole and pull. Wrench him out by force, because the slick blood will make this easier, and because that way, even if you break his ribs or pelvis or whatever bone is keeping him stuck in the process (because fat and muscle does compress), he has a chance to survive. Leave a signed and sealed confession to the identity and crime of Jean Valjean with the parish priest, and then attempt to break the arrested 'Jean Valjean' out of jail - because confessing up front simply gets you killed instead of him, but attempting to break him out of jail has a chance of saving both of you, and if you are killed in the attempt, well, you would have been killed anyway.

Morality is not about choosing between two options presented to you by powerful external entities; it's about taking whatever possible means are available to ensure the best possible outcome in the ends, which includes the effect of your means. "Means justifying the ends", or not, is a fallacious viewpoint in my opinion, because "means" are themselves ends. Example: kill Fred to save Jack and Judy may well have been the right thing to do, but the end isn't "Jack and Judy are alive", the end is "Jack and Judy are alive and Fred is dead, and you killed him to save them." The story is not over just because the particular sequence of events under consideration are over - further events will occur contingent on your actions, which you, in turn, may react to. Stories are a subjective way of looking at small pieces of the vast interwoven framework of time; they have no objective reality.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:13 AM on November 25, 2007 [24 favorites]


I think creasy boy makes a good point. People often seem to assume that utilitarian ethics are the only option.

Another option is deontological ethics, where you stick to moral rules regardless of the consequences.

The thing is, utilitarian ethics works very well in ludicrously artificial situations (why not shout "TRAIN! GET OFF THE TRACK DICKHEAD!")? In the real world though, practically every evil act that's been done has been self-justified by finding the right utilitarian argument. ("It's a harsh necessity to kill all the Jews, but it will make the world so better place when they're gone that it's worth it.")
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:24 AM on November 25, 2007


By "mitigating the damage" in the example you gave, you're causing the death of someone who otherwise would not die.

I admit it's a tricky question where the act of killing begins. Let's say -- I'm inventing this example right now, so please excuse the stupidity of it -- the stone parapet breaks off a building and is falling onto a big crowd. With your mild superpowers you could fly up and nudge it a bit, so it falls on the edge of the crowd and not the middle, where it's liable to crush only 3-4 people and not 10-20. I don't think this mild superhero can be said to have killed anyone. However, when you push an innocent guy onto the track, it does seem that you have killed someone. There is an intuitive difference, even when it's not at all clear what principles are behind the intuition. It is clear that, all things being equal, it is better for one person to die than for five people to die; but it's not clear that you can kill an innocent person, even to save other people's lives. When you change variables in the situation so that the proper moral description seems to be not just "I changed things so that fewer die" but "I killed one so that others live" then it's not necessarily just "irrational" or a matter of simple emotion if people respond differently.
posted by creasy boy at 2:25 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Civil_Disobedient said All these tests do is remove any creativity for problem solving by giving you end scenarios that you somehow magically know in advance, like the "who do you save if your mother and father are both drowning and you can only reach one in time before the other drowns?" questions.

Which reminded me of the following "Morality Test" that was making the rounds awhile back:

You're in Miami, Florida. There is great chaos going on around you, caused by a hurricane and severe flooding. There are huge masses of water forming devastating waves...

You are a news photographer and you are in the middle of this great disaster. You're trying to shoot very impressive photos. There are houses and cars floating around you, disappearing into the water. Nature is showing all its destructive power...

Suddenly, you see a man in the water, fighting for his life. You move closer. Somehow the man looks familiar. Suddenly you know who it is - it's George W. Bush! The raging waters are about to take him away ...

Two thoughts come to your mind. You can try to save him or you can take the best photo of your life. You can save the life of George W. Bush, or you can shoot a Pulitzer prize winning photo...

Now for the dilemma: Would you select color film, or go with the simplicity of classic black-and-white?


Gawd, I hope I didn't just derail my own thread.
posted by amyms at 2:26 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


amyms: OK, we admit it. It was a chicken.
posted by teppic at 2:35 AM on November 25, 2007


Should an occupying power deny access to treatment to a person in need of urgent attention?


Should a Navy turn away a leaky boat full of suspected illegal immigrants with the high probability that the boat will sink?

posted by mattoxic at 2:49 AM on November 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


Well, I could kill the baby, but the sick guy should be throwing himself out the boat.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:52 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes.
posted by vapidave at 3:01 AM on November 25, 2007


That film you're thinking of might be Escape from Sobibor, a 1987 movie that has a scene in which a baby gets smothered to avoid discovery.
posted by zhwj at 3:17 AM on November 25, 2007


The thing that bothers me with moral dilemma scenarios as commonly presented is that we are given yes/no options without room for variations or alternative possibilities.

You are right that usually we have more than two options in any given situation. However, a situation where your options are limited to either allowing a bunch of people to die or doing something that causes another group of people to die are theoretically possible. It is an interesting to ask what one would or should do in such situations, even if they are incredibly unlikely to actually happen. I mean, sure, if you can avoid killing anyone at all, that would be great. But what if, for some reason, you can't?

Anyway, I've seen these particular moral dilemmas many times, and the one with the five people on one track and one person on the other track always seems strange to me. It is always posed in a way that makes it seem like allowing one person to die is preferable to allowing five people to die. But, this assumes that one human life is just as valuable as another, which may be a questionable assumption. For instance, what if the five people on one track were all serial killers, and the one person on the other track would go on to find a cure for cancer if allowed to live? Without knowing who the people on the tracks were, you'd have no way of knowing how much damage would be done to society by saving five lives at the cost of one. I suppose you could argue probabilistically, that more harm is likely to come from the deaths of five people than from the death of one. But, would you really want to decide who lives and who dies based on a guess (even if it is likely to be correct)?

I would argue in favor of not flipping the switch, and letting the five people on the track die. Failing to save lives seems like a much smaller offense than causing someone to die, which is what you'd be doing by flipping the switch. This stance then makes it easy to give consistent answers to all three variations on this dilemma given in the article - in each case you do nothing, and let whoever was going to die do so. Further, this position is justifiable not just by the fact that you wouldn't be causing anyone's death, but also by the fact that it is not obvious in the first place that saving the five particular people on the track at the cost of the life of the person on the other track would be good for society in the long term, as mentioned in the previous paragraph.
posted by epimorph at 3:26 AM on November 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


That film you're thinking of might be Escape from Sobibor, a 1987 movie that has a scene in which a baby gets smothered to avoid discovery.

It also happened to some Japanese civilians in the Solomons Guadalcanal I think. They were sheltering in cave with some soldiers, they heard the Americans approaching, baby cries...
posted by mattoxic at 3:28 AM on November 25, 2007


zhwj said: That film you're thinking of might be Escape from Sobibor...

Thanks, zhwj, but that's not the one I'm thinking of (it sounds like a good movie, though). By 1987 I was an adult, and I know I saw the one I'm thinking of when I was a child or early teen.
posted by amyms at 3:29 AM on November 25, 2007


I only know that making decisions like this would probably destroy me.
posted by maryh at 4:04 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm 87% moral according to that quiz.

I didn't kill the baby and in fact, fuck the people who are dicking around on the train tracks.

That's not a morality issue. It's more of a health and safety one.


For those pocket philosophers, is morality meant to be distilled down to questions of what you would kill to save someone? Or are there other flavours?
posted by Lord_Pall at 4:14 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maryh sums up my position--which would be the result I could live with? I could not live with myself for smothering a baby, much as I actually don't have much fondness for the little things. I could probably help the terminal person over the side of the lifeboat, but with the hope they would help, as it were. The one/five scenario is easy with the switch and catapult (in that the catapult is ridiculous, I mean, if some dude is strapped to something just for this eventuality, I'm doing him a favor. I would not be able to push someone off a bridge to save others when I could choose myself.

However, given the perilous state of the environment and overpopulation, the actual correct answers are:

1) Let the baby cry
2) Keep the dude on the lifeboat
3) Five people gone is better for mother nature than one
4) The dude and I high five
5) I catapult the dude, but hesitate just enough to guarantee six down and earn my way into the bonus round.
posted by maxwelton at 4:22 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would hold my hand over the baby's mouth long enough to let the bad guys go away, then try very hard to resuscitate it. But if I'm going to kill a baby to get away, I'm going to leave it out as a distraction, maybe in a dead woman's arms, while we all skulk off in the other direction. Maybe the bad guys will let it live.

In the tram situations, I would scream and yell and maybe even jump into the front or side of the tram or on to the roof from that bridge if I thought I could do it with a tram-stopping bang and still live and keep my limbs.

In the boat problem, I would find a way to float myself or some other person, even if it meant taking turns swimming. It might be that all healthy people could hang on to the side in turns long enough to let everyone live, even the person I suspect (but cannot know) is going to die soon. If someone does die, though, I want the corpse for food; I don't want to feed it to the little fishies. In any case, a boat that close to sinking is going to capsize if I try to throw someone over the side.

I could throw the Time site's copy editor "overbaord" with no qualms. I might tie the copy editor to the person who posed the quiz as if it meant something, then throw them both over.
posted by pracowity at 4:46 AM on November 25, 2007


amyms -- I think you're thinking of the miniseries "Holocaust" with Meryl Streep and James Woods. I think -- it's been a while for me too. First thing I thought of when reading this post, though.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:55 AM on November 25, 2007


I've found that people, more often than not, will do whatever they think is necessary to their survival, however distasteful it may seem at the time. You don't *know* if you have this 'survival instinct' until you have to use it, but in my experience most people possess more of a survival instinct than they realize.

I faced my biggest moral dilemma the night my mother died, when I was 12. She and I were visiting my sister, and my mom got rip-roaring drunk with my sister's husband. When it came time to leave I pleaded with my sister (who was 25-ish at the time) to drive us home, but she said she was going out with some friends and didn't have time. (No time to save your mother's and brother's lives? I didn't even *partially* forgive her for that for more than 20 years.)

Well, with great reluctance I got in the car with my mom and she started driving us home, via a two-lane road, with oncoming traffic in the other lane. She started drifting into the other lane and I was, frankly, terrified. I could see that if she didn't pull over, a Bad Event was very likely. I begged her to pull over but she refused. Then I started yelling at her to pull over, but she refused and started to get angry with me for yelling at her. I considered grabbing the wheel or trying to ram my foot on the brakes, but with her as drunk as she was, and as resistant as she was, that seemed *extremely* dangerous, more likely to cause an accident than doing nothing at all.

So I did the only thing I *could* do: I climbed into the back seat (on the driver's side) and hunkered down as low as I could, and prayed. Not a minute later my mom veered drunkenly off the road going 60 mph. It happened to be a parking lot, and we bounced violently over a dozen concrete tire stops then slammed into a telephone pole with enough force to crack it in two and throw the upper piece, wires still attached, about twenty yards. The car, a 1974 Pinto (one of the least safe cars ever designed) was split down the middle by the lower portion of the telephone pole, damage so severe that there was basically no front seat area left. My mom died instantly, I was told later. I was bruised by some cinderblocks we had kept in the hatchback trunk area for winter stability, but was otherwise unharmed (which was a miracle, considering what the car looked like).

To this day I still wonder, was there nothing else I could have done? Smoke the emergency brake? Knock my mom out with a cinderblock and take control of the car? I guess I'll never know. But I do know this: I desperately wanted to live and I did what I could to maximize the odds of living, which is why I'm able to type this message today.
posted by jamstigator at 5:05 AM on November 25, 2007 [25 favorites]


Oh yeah, a funny addendum. The woman and I watched that movie about the plane crash survivors in the Andes who turned to cannibalism to survive. My woman asked me if we went down in the Andes like that, would I eat *her* to survive? I said yes, absolutely, but being the kind and compassionate gentleman that I am, I'd gladly share her legs with her. She got really pissed off for some reason! So I didn't mention the fact that feeding her her own legs would keep her alive longer and the rest of the, ahem, 'meat' fresh for later. Heh.
posted by jamstigator at 5:45 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Holy cow, jamstigator. That's rough. We can't know for sure, but I would have to say, no, there was nothing else to be done. Especially as the outcome wasn't certain- if you had taken more drastic measures (grabbing the wheel, etc.) they likely would have caused an equally bad outcome that would have made you feel they were directly your fault.
posted by jiiota at 5:48 AM on November 25, 2007


Jamstigator, thanks for sharing that. You highlight the real problem with these little puzzles, just as others have pointed out; you don't know how you will react in a situation like this until you're in it. In your case you had to balance the danger of the situation against your mother's authority and likely greater strength and the likelihood that she would punish you for interfering with her cool getting-home-now plan. So you did what these little puzzles don't, which is you found a creative middle solution that balanced the danger you felt against the likely fallout for acting.

I've heard a lot of similar stories in the last two years from people who stayed in town for Katrina. I've spoken to people whose relatives were swept away before their eyes, who had to rescue themselves by stealing boats, who walked out of the de facto I-10 concentration camp rather than wait for the buses. And of course I've spoken with countless people who evacuated but came back to find everything they owned ruined. As I work with these people I have realized one important thing: My experience is not their experience.

All of which is why when I hear somebody who's never even been to New Orleans bloviate about how those who live here are stupid and those who stayed were stupid and deserve to die, I want to hold their head under water. All of those choices are much more complicated than they appear on paper, and we never know how we will choose until we experience the situation firsthand.
posted by localroger at 5:55 AM on November 25, 2007


As for the people saying, "I wouldn't have pushed the guy off the bridge- I would have chosen some superior third option. I would have run down and helped the guy off the tracks." I can't help imagining that when you play monopoly, you get fed up that it isn't real money. What the hell is this? This isn't real money. What's the point? Or that when you play chess, you have your pawns leap off the board, run around the side of the table, and stab your opponent's king in the back. Why constrain them to forward movement, or to the board at all?

It's just a little mental exercise- they're asking you this to see what you think, not to prepare you for when it actually happens. The brain works differently in the scenarios of killing someone by pushing a button vs killing someone with your own hands.

Radio Labs did a fascinating piece on this subject (here).
posted by jiiota at 5:55 AM on November 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


> Worthless quiz. All the scenarios are rigged with pre-determined result paths, which is something
> you would almost never have in real life.

I have no intention of looking at the quiz. The only truthful answer to all such hypothetical horror-show questions is "Ask me again after it's happened and I'll tell you what I did. Until then I merely--fervently--hope life never forces me to make such a choice."

As for the example quoted in the fpp that it's hard not to see while scanning the blue, the obvious right answer (not the likely one, of course, but the right one) is for each person hiding in the room to possess the clarity of conscience to have decided, long ago, that he would rather face death than live on if living on requires the purposeful sacrifice of another person.
posted by jfuller at 6:36 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


"What's going on in our heads?" asks Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Why do we say it's O.K. to trade one life for five in one case and not others?"

Maybe they're not studying morality, but metacognition and especially what you know about your capabilities in quick decision-making in stressful situations. Again neuropsychs/evopsychs are tagging their research with as big labels as possible. Notice also avoidance of use of the word 'ethics' in article. That they know is out of their league. :)
posted by Free word order! at 6:37 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Scenario 4 The Itchy Butt

You are sitting in your mom's basement surfing the Internet. Suddenly your butt starts to itch. If you shift yourself to scratch it, you will disturb the kitty, who is peacefully sleeping in your lap. Do you scratch your butt?

Yes, I could scratch my butt
No, I could not scratch my butt


Scenario 4b

The same situation, but this time your bong is balanced precariously on the end table near you. You are not completely certain, but it is quite possible that the remnants in the bowl are the last bits of your stash. Shifting your body will not only disturb the sleeping kitty, but could also potentially dump your bong onto the floor.


Yes, I could scratch my butt
No, I could not scratch my butt

posted by Meatbomb at 6:40 AM on November 25, 2007 [20 favorites]


Stupid questions trying to apply rationality to scenarios where, was anything similar to play itself out in real live, all calculated thought goes out the window. There's an out of control trolley and it's going to kill those, lets see, one, two, three, fo*splat*. Oh.

If it's just a thought exercise why not phrase it as such? "Could you kill a baby if it meant saving yourself and a number of others (including the baby) from certain death?" "Could you kill a fully aware adult in the same circumstance?" "Could you chose between death for one to save five?" "Could you directly kill one to save five?" "Could you indirectly kill one to save five?"

And even "could I do it" isn't a question of morality. 'Cause I would 'know' it was wrong to put that guy overboard and I would do it anyway.
posted by adamt at 6:42 AM on November 25, 2007


jiiota, the problem is that they are casting the results of these artificial games as whether or not you are moral. If we want to accept game like artificial limitations the result should be whether or not you are a good strategist.
posted by localroger at 6:44 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


These questions are simple-minded and would very rarely if ever happen. Why not ask a question that happens almost every day like "you run a hedge fund and you know that divesting your assets in a certain company would bankrupt a town and condemn the workers to welfare and homelessness do you do it even though it will put a million dollars in your pocket?"
posted by any major dude at 6:51 AM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


Fair enough, localroger. To me, the quiz is a distraction from what's most interesting about this subject, which is that one part of the brain tackles the question of right and wrong when it's faced with the prospect of killing someone directly (pushing him off a ledge) but it's another part of the brain entirely that answers the question of whether it's ok to kill someone by pushing a button. And this question really does come up all the time. Should we bomb country X? People are more willing to vote yes than would be willing to kill a single person from country X with their own hands (logistical concerns aside).
posted by jiiota at 6:53 AM on November 25, 2007


jiiogta, I don't think that's what people are saying at all. They're saying that they may try a third option that they don't know if it will be better or worse than the options given. It's like the questions are written to punish critical thinkers. The entire point is that real life almost never works that way. And you can't compare this 'game' to chess because chess never presumes to reflect what you'd do in a real-life battle just like monopoly never assumes business is as simple.

If you're going to do silly mental exercises either phrase them better and leave them more open ended or come up with a more realistic way to restrict the options so the person who is asked the question is limited to the two you want. The way it's done now is artificially restricting options which gets on many people's nerves. As it stands all I can answer to "what would you do? is "how the hell should I know? you aren't letting me do anything I might try in real life!"

If the point is to just 'run with a crazy scenario' then here's my question: "what if you were made of a cheese?" Well, that would be awesome as I love cheese. Do I grow more cheese so that when I eat myself it comes back? I'd also have to worry about other cheese lovers wanting a piece of me(I don't blame them, I know I'd have to be high quality. No American cheese for this milk product. I hope I'm provolone). Ok, a little stupid, but the questions, as phrased, are also pretty stupid.

The better question that's on everyone's mind is: The lady or the tiger? That's how you restrict a scenario to two options.
posted by Green With You at 6:58 AM on November 25, 2007


This quiz really just tests the degree to which you suffer from the illusion that inaction removes responsibility. It is a peculiar tendency of humans to consider a choice that does not involve moving their muscles to somehow negate their responsibility for a forseen outcome. If each question were reframed so that an action MUST be taken, (i.e. kill one person, kill two people or allow all three to die along with yourself), the answers are much clearer, resolving to a choice to kill more or fewer people.
posted by gregor-e at 7:04 AM on November 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


Jiiota, that in turn is fair enough; but I'd say that these are visceral decisions which are finely tuned to the situation in which we find ourselves. Although I've never faced a situation as horrific as these I've noticed that when I'm in a situation where the possibilities are rapidly diminishing and it's clear that something distasteful has to be done, a kind of eerie calm descends over me and I have no trouble acting. That's probably the part of my brain you're interested in cranking up, but the problem is that feeling doesn't come out for games; it comes out when I feel I am in danger.

For these mind games my rational mind is going no, this is stupid, these are all fuzzy probabilities and so maybe it isn't absolutely necessary, maybe there is a riskier but less lethal path, etc. However, I have no doubt that if the eerie sense of calm came up and said yep, if you don't brain that dude with the rock you will die, I would brain the dude with the rock. It's just that I have only felt the eerie sense of calm a few times, and it's never had to tell me anything that harsh, and I know it's not ready to appear based on the slim info given in these crisp little exercises.
posted by localroger at 7:10 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I thought I recognized this test. It's the same one I had to pass before being allowed to travel back in time and kill the infant Adolf Hitler.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:10 AM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]



For similar moral dilemmas applied to juries: n guilty men (also previously on MeFi, but it was easier just to google it)
posted by nax at 7:16 AM on November 25, 2007


I agree with you, localroger. I've felt that eerie, almost time-altering calm a few times in my life. Once was in the car accident that killed my mother. Another time was when I started taking fire in Grenada (turned out to be drunk Americans playing around who didn't know they were shooting at our guard duty spot). Another time was when a Turkish guy attacked me with a knife in Izmir. And another time was when my stepfather hit me and broke my collarbone (a reaction to my sticking a fork into his back as deep as it would go), after beating my mom nigh to death. (She was legally blind without glasses after that beating.)

My reactions to all of these events weren't really well-considered, but rather a natural and instinctive impulse to do whatever seemed necessary to survive. If you take the time to think and consider during such times, you greatly lower your odds of survival. Sometimes it's the speed with which you take action that's more important than the actual action you take.
posted by jamstigator at 7:19 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


All right, pop quiz. Airport, gunman with one hostage. He's using her for cover; he's almost to a plane. You're a hundred feet away...
posted by kirkaracha at 7:21 AM on November 25, 2007


Reminds me of...

CGI TOBEY MAGUIRE
Shit, shit, shit! If I choose Kirsten, I am a horrible person for allowing innocents to die. But if I choose the children, what kind of man am I for allowing to die the woman I love? There’s only one thing I can do.

He grabs KIRSTEN and the CABLE as well.

CGI WILLEM DAFOE
No, look, pay attention. You were supposed to make a CHOICE. That was the damned point.

posted by saintsguy at 7:26 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


This all reminds me of a story about a library-related job interview a guy I knew at school had. The whole interview went pretty much by the book until the last question, when the interviewer asked him this: imagine you're the captain of a boat with 100 people on it, and the boat is sinking. You can be guaranteed of saving the lives of 90 of the people by sacrificing 10, or you have 50-50 odds of everyone living or dying. After asking himself WTF this had to do with any goddamn library on the planet, he replied that he wouldn't be comfortable gambling 100 lives on 50-50 odds, so he'd reluctantly take the 90-10 option. The interviewer's response; "So, you'd let those ten people DIE????"

He didn't get the job, which was probably a good thing, seeing as how the library in question went down at sea last week, with the loss of all hands.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:03 AM on November 25, 2007 [12 favorites]



I thought I recognized this test. It's the same one I had to pass before being allowed to travel back in time and kill the infant Adolf Hitler.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:10 PM on November 25 [+] [!]


So, what the hell did you end up doing when they sent you back? Slacker.
posted by bluejayk at 8:06 AM on November 25, 2007


This quiz really just tests the degree to which you suffer from the illusion that inaction removes responsibility.

Well, this isolates the real core of the problem, but I think you're mistaken about this. I am not, right now, doing anything to feed the hungry all over the world; yesterday I did nothing to feed them, and tomorrow I will likewise do nothing. Yet no-one would hold me responsible for their deaths. If I were to take positive action by, e.g., stealing their food, then I would be held responsible for their deaths. So I don't see how this is an "illusion". Responsibility is not a fact of nature, it is a human practice and it works according to distinctions that human societies make. In fact, in our actual practice of holding people responsible, we make a distinction between action and inaction. (I'm not saying people are never responsible for inaction, but the distinction of action/inaction plays an important role in moral judgment.) So what's illusory about this?

And let me ask you: are you, right now, doing everything possible to ameliorate the world's evils? Or are you maybe knowingly and willfully inactive against these evils most of the time because you have your own life to lead? And do you truly feel guilty about this? I assume you're not consumed with guilt about it...and this is why people feel a difference between switching the train from one track to another, and pushing the man onto the tracks. And if this is a "peculiar human tendency"...well, who else would it be a tendency of? Lions? Walruses?
posted by creasy boy at 8:08 AM on November 25, 2007


"Oh look, I'm 67% moral." "Well, I'm 79% moral, you loser."

Fucking stupid. As soon as I saw "Time", I knew it would be moronic.
posted by wfc123 at 8:23 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Am I the only one who wonders if these little tests are designed to see who are the hidden concentration-camp guards among us? Seriously. Morality = murdering others for the greater good? Did Himmler write this test or what?
posted by Avenger at 8:24 AM on November 25, 2007


"Hey, let's rent all the Saw movies and then write a quiz!"
posted by hermitosis at 8:45 AM on November 25, 2007


I think these thought experiments are useful in garnering the intuitive data points out of which some ethicists in philosophy build their normative theories.

For more fun, here's a parody of the infamous trolley dilemma which exploits the unintuitive and impractical aspects of these types of thought experiments.

"On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans' bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie" and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by "Leftie" are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived."
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:45 AM on November 25, 2007 [21 favorites]


jamstigator: I don't mean to pry, but after all those stories, I'm a bit confused. Is the mom who was driving the car the same mom as was legally blind?
posted by honest knave at 8:49 AM on November 25, 2007


In my business ethics class we had to write up what we would do in instances like these - totally pointless and the worst class ever, particularly as we were graded on the "morality" of what we wrote and on the professors' idea of the right choice rather than on the creative solutions we came up with. We had one that involved "the crying baby dilemma", so this is a common version I think. The one I hated most, though, involved something about climbing a pass in Nepal, getting into trouble and having to leave one of the party behind - either one of the party or the local guide. By leaving "the Swami" behind (given that, in my mind, he would be better able to survive on his own), I was apparently "outed" as a racist, according to the professor. Swell, right?
While they may make for interesting conversation, they are just too simplistic to be any real indicator of morality or of your personal ethics. Like others have said (thanks, jamstigator for sharing) it's almost impossible to know how you will react when it actually comes down to it. You do what you must, and it's never easy.
posted by gemmy at 8:50 AM on November 25, 2007


inconsequentialist, an excellent addition would be that if by selecting the right fork, thus sparing the author, this thought experiment will be added to the curriculum of every high school in the nation.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:10 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Mostly I try to pretend quizzes like this are aiming toward extending human understanding, and are not simply virtual amusement park rides for the affluent jaded, designed to give us a few moments of ethical vertigo at absolutely no risk to our opinion of ourselves, and to deposit us right back where we started only even more full of unearned self-esteem (and to help yet another academic hypocrite toward tenure, of course), but this morning, I am just not up to the job.
posted by jamjam at 9:26 AM on November 25, 2007


Stupid. Creasy nailed this from the beginning - the weird paucity of creative moral thinking, and probably the pervasiveness of analytic philosophy, leads to this weird "utilitarianism is the only way to go" sort of morality quiz. The examples always assume a level of knowledge that rarely (if ever) corresponds to the real world, because utilitarianism only works as a viable system of ethics if we can have a fantasy of informed rationality. I'm no fan of deontology, but still... there's no room for Kant, Arendt, Levinas and so on in this quiz, as well as Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist ethical conventions, and as such it misses out of moral thinking that is both far more interesting and far more important.

So I think a "someone wastes your time with a quiz that rewards you for agreeing to kill people and suppresses creative thinking, and offers condescending percentile based assessments of your morality - what do you do?" Answer? "Shoot the hostage."
posted by hank_14 at 9:37 AM on November 25, 2007


See, the thing that's weird is... I know the questions are all about saving numerous people or sacrificing one, and about self preservation. But if the question was that I needed to jump onto the tracks and sacrifice myself to save other people, that would be an easier decision than killing someone else. I can easily sacrifice my best interests for the good of others,* but I feel like I wouldn't have any right to make the choice to end another life.

*Not always a great quality, really.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:40 AM on November 25, 2007


One's morality is not decided through one's action during a moral dilemma. By definition, you will be acting immorally no matter what you do during a moral dilemma.

The proper way to judge one's morality is examining how one acts when there is no moral dilemma.

In short, do you act morally when no one is watching?
posted by milarepa at 9:47 AM on November 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


This questions aren't stupid, but it shouldn't be billed as a 'quiz' either: all you are being compared against is the answers of other people. It is more of a survey than a quiz.

To people saying the survey is biased toward utilitarianism, I think the point is missed entirely. A purely utilitarian result for a lot of these dilemmas would be considered heartless by many people, showing that human morality does not work in that way. The interplay between rational thought and emotional reactions is the thing highlighted by this article. Moral variables like action vs. inaction and insider vs. outsider seem to be very important to humans and worth studying and discussing.
posted by demiurge at 9:56 AM on November 25, 2007


Utilitarianism has never been billed as purely rational. It obviously includes emotional cues (Bentham's discussion of the good does this, to cite an obvious example), it just fantasizes about a way to incorporate them into a rational system that judges actions based upon the possibility of knowing and contributing to a greater good. It's the fantasy of the moral situations themselves that predetermines the results as utilitarian, not the visceral responses to the moral dilemmas, nor the number-counting, since both flow from the clearly defined nature of the dilemmas in the first place.
posted by hank_14 at 10:00 AM on November 25, 2007


Hmm... all this reminds me very much of the stupid-ass hypothetical nuke people bring up when trying to justify torture. It's all about convoluted situations in which being a sociopath actually makes sense, presented as if they are some kind of norm.
posted by Artw at 10:06 AM on November 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


inconsequentialist: Vatbrain should pick the option that kills Hitler. (As always.)
posted by tyrantkitty at 10:10 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


honest knave, yes, same mom. Like I said, she was legally blind after the beating *without her glasses*. With glasses, they were able to get her vision back up to something they considered okay enough to drive. Without them it was 640/20 (she could see at 20 feet what a normal person could see clearly at 640 feet). Or is that 20/640? Whichever is the bad one.
posted by jamstigator at 10:11 AM on November 25, 2007


Except for one comment regarding the "terrorism/torture" aspect, nobody's mentioning the elephant in the room (as far as I'm concerned)-- to whit:

This utilitarian viewpoint, that there's a rational way to respond to a dire situation, with clear end results etc. is the (in my opinion) PRIMARY DRIVER of the torture debate.

Leaving aside the moral dilemma of even having a debate in the first place, the test is all recapitulations of the Jack Bauer effect: If you know someone has knowledge of a terrorist attack, then torturing them is a reasonable thing to do under the circumstances to save lives.

Bill thinks it's OK. (not that he's a paragon of moral virtue, but I'm offended nonetheless...)

I looked for the citation, but couldn't find it, (sorry) the New Yorker had an article a few months ago about the fact that '24' has heavily contributed to a slackening attitude in the military about the morality of torture. Because '24' is giving people the false impression that the question of torture is a utilitarian one.

You NEVER really have an idea of what you'll do when push comes to shove until that moment happens.

jamstigator , you story makes me so sad. I'm glad you survived, and I'm sorry you had to go through that.
posted by asavage at 10:12 AM on November 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


I agree, demiurge. It's misleading to call this set of questions a quiz. Saying it's a quiz assumes that there are right answers against which the respondent's answers can be measured. In actuality, these questions are generally used to gauge intuitions rather than to see whether or not the person has it right morally.

The trolley thought experiment can be a nice way to demonstrate to a newcomer to ethical theory the different sorts of normative theories that are available to provide answers. When TAing for a Contemporary Moral Issues course a few years ago, my students had to write a paper explaining how a utilitarian, a deontologist, and a virtue theorist would respond to the trolley dilemma. They may have then had to argue for which theory they thought had the best answer to the problem. But I think putting the theories in the context of the thought experiment benefitted their understanding.
posted by inconsequentialist at 10:16 AM on November 25, 2007


The test sucks and so does this discussion.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:27 AM on November 25, 2007


This utilitarian viewpoint, that there's a rational way to respond to a dire situation, with clear end results etc. is the (in my opinion) PRIMARY DRIVER of the torture debate.

I'm curious as to how you would adjucate the conflicting deontological rules of "Don't torture" and "Don't let people be killed."
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:28 AM on November 25, 2007


There's a book by Michael Moorcock, the title of which escapes me, which has these at the end of every chapter.

Breakfast in the Ruins.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:29 AM on November 25, 2007


The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.
posted by odinsdream at 10:32 AM on November 25, 2007


Again, I'm not a fan of deontology, but Pope, it's important to remember that deontology isn't supposed to produce a set of secondary ethical edicts/principles, but rather to explain how won decides, rationally, to be good based on simple first conditions: Do not treat anyone as merely a means to an end, and never do anything that, when extended to the extreme, would be contradicting - these are guidelines from which one decides how to act. So one cannot torture because one cannot treat the individual as a means to and end (saving lives). One should not let people die as a general guideline, but in the torture scenario, torturing one because they MIGHT have knowledge of how others would kill would, if extended, justify torturing everyone because they all MIGHT know something, if only they had their memory jogged the right way (they need not be guilty - they might just need to be prompted to provide information about something they saw that they didn't know was important), in which case we would torture and kill everyone in order to save everyone. So torture fails the test, period, even if it means that people die in the end.
posted by hank_14 at 10:40 AM on November 25, 2007


s/won/one
posted by hank_14 at 10:40 AM on November 25, 2007


Yeah, I have to agree with creasy boy and Civil_Disobedient there's just no room for latitude and that makes any thoughtful response (hence any moral response) impossible.
Back in October a CPD sniper took out a nutcase who was holding some folks hostage. That's more akin to real life narrow focus moral dilemmas - do you skillfully and with knowledge and aforethought kill someone because he's already killed a hostage and appears to be planning to kill others or do you give in to his demands and just leave the area.
Obviously it's a nearly impossible situation - it boils down to kill someone in cold blood or leave the hostages in the hands of someone you know has killed one of them, and let him escape. Not really an option.

The assumptions in the tests drive me nuts. Especially where it plays with your capability or incapabilities. (e.g. What if I'm a doctor? Can't I heal the wounded man? Or anesthetize the baby?)
jamstigator's situation was not only a real problem, but very illustrative of that capacity level thing. You can't really say "Well, I would have..." because if your put yourself there, you're only 12.

We can't really expect a level of responsibility from a 12 year old that's commensurate with an adult with their full physical and mental faculties.
Similarly, you're pretty blind in these tests, and under a, quite literally, ridiculous level of constraint.
I can't see killing a child under any circumstances, but apparently in addition to this insanely genocidal army you face (who have the ammunition to expend killing infants and, pretty much everyone along with fighting whatever war), their supernatural capacity to realize any sound is a target (perhaps they're zombies? Oh, but that'd be unrealistic, right?), your inability to find any other means to silence the baby, the inability of anyone else to do so, parents who will abandon an infant - apparently without expending their lives or eventually caring that you killed their child - along with everyone else in the room who could, apparently, care less that you're killing a baby, even though they refuse to do so for some reason themselves - you are also rooted to the spot in the basement and incapable of drawing the enemy away from the infant or the others.

Yeah, real common experience in "war time." Oooh, it's 'war time,' water runs uphill, clouds turn into giant bats, oooh.

Also, who the hell designed the rail system for the trolleys where anyone can access control? Not to mention going out of control and people getting stuck on the tracks, that'd be pretty much top of my list when formulating who's responsible for those deaths.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:40 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


demiurge: the examples all pick out situations where the quantifiable effect of an action seems the really salient point, and since the whole thing purports to be a 'quiz' about morality, this suggests that the really salient thing about morality is the quantifiable effects of action. If the quiz included an example like: "you found out that your father is cheating on your mother; should you tell her, since she would want to know the truth, or should you spare her the heartbreak?" then we would get a much different picture of morality, in my view a much more relevant and realistic one. I agree with you, surveys can be helpful in pointing useful factors in moral reasoning, but moral reasoning is a much broader phenomenon than just, "which is better: Joe stubs his toe real hard, or Jack stubs his toe only one-third as hard"?

hank_14: I meant utilitarianism billed itself as rational, not in only addressing purely rational agents (it doesn't, it acknowledges emotion), but in imagining that by focusing on quantifiable effects it has finally established a 'scientific', objective standard. And I think Time Magazine seems to have bought this idea.
posted by creasy boy at 10:41 AM on November 25, 2007


McCoy: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
Saavik: How?
Kirk: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
Saavik: What?
David Marcus: He cheated.
Kirk: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose.
Saavik: Then you never faced that situation. Faced death.
Kirk: I don't believe in the no-win scenario.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:41 AM on November 25, 2007


Rig the baby up to some dynamite and let the soldiers discover it...
posted by wobh at 10:42 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Creasy, you and I are in total agreement on this.
posted by hank_14 at 10:42 AM on November 25, 2007


If you know someone has knowledge of a terrorist attack, then torturing them is a reasonable thing to do under the circumstances to save lives.

And how do you know what they tell you will be the truth?

All these tests fail the most elementary epistemological tests. How do we know?

One of the reasons these tests are so frustrating is because they deny you the morality of trying. Yet that's where almost all of our morality comes from: not in the success or failure, but in the attempt. For example, take two possible scenarios from the first question: scenario one, you love killing babies, so you hold your hand over the baby's mouth and it dies. Scenario two: you don't want the baby to die, but you stifle the baby's crying and hope you can resusitate it.

Scenario one and two both have the same outcome: the baby dies from asphyxiation. Yet with the second option you are still moral because it was never your intention to kill the baby. Now, how do you tell one from the other when all you're given is a simple "option A / option B"? You can't.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:45 AM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Karlos the Jackal said: I think you're thinking of the miniseries "Holocaust" with Meryl Streep and James Woods. I think -- it's been a while for me too. First thing I thought of when reading this post, though.

I think that's the one. Thank you, Karlos.
posted by amyms at 10:47 AM on November 25, 2007


There weren't any baby-catapulting options! This quiz sucks!
posted by aubilenon at 10:48 AM on November 25, 2007


Here's another moral dilemma I had once, and I'm still not quite sure I did the moral thing, or the immoral thing.

I went into Grenada for the invasion in late '83. Well, we had set up our site (in the middle of a valley with ridges on all sides, very bad location, easy to get bushwhacked by enemies coming over a ridge). Anyway, I was sent out to patrol our perimeter. I climbed one of the ridges, the closest one to the airport the Cubans were building at Point Salines.

At the top of the ridge I scanned around. Between my ridge and the airport was another smaller ridge, about 25 or 30 yards shorter than the one I was on, so I could see that ridge and, beyond it, the airport. On the smaller ridge in front of me was a Cuban soldier sniping at the airport. But everyone at the airport (which was firmly in our control by then) had taken cover, so the soldier wasn't actually endangering any *people*, just random property, most of it Cuban in origin.

So, the dilemma was, do I shoot this guy, or do I not? I lined him up in my sights. There was no question that with one pull of my trigger, he'd be dead -- I was an expert marksman, could shoot a rattlesnake in half at 300 meters (and did that once, which is how I knew I could). But I hesitated, because I wasn't really sure whether killing him was the right thing or not. Had he been shooting at *me*, or had there been exposed friendly forces taking his fire unprotected, then it would have been a no-brainer. But to kill him for shooting at mere property, well, I just didn't know the right thing to do.

While I was looking at him in my sights and thinking these thoughts, I hear the rotor sound of an approaching helicopter, who had also apparently spotted the same sniper I was eyeing. And then it was too late for me to make a decision; the helicopter launched some rockets at the guy, there was a gigantic explosion, and his body parts went flying.

I think one reason I hesitated like that is a few days earlier, we had raided a Cuban barracks and took a bunch of their wooden wall lockers for our own use. Inside the wall locker I took for myself there was a Christmas card from a young son to his Cuban soldier father. I didn't understand much of what was written on the card, although I got the 'Feliz Navidad' part of it. It was clearly something like, 'I miss you, Daddy, hope you have a happy Christmas'. That humanized the enemy for me. They weren't just blobs to be shot to death anymore; they were people, with families and feelings...just like me.

In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't kill him. I'm not sure it was right that I didn't, because killing enemy soldiers was the crux of my job, after all. But since it worked out the way it did, I have no regrets on that one, regardless of whether it was right or wrong.
posted by jamstigator at 10:53 AM on November 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


Wow, this discussion is going much better than I would imagine. Because I've strangled babies for interrupting Malcolm in the Middle. The approaching Nazi scenario is a no-brainer.
posted by Rumple at 10:54 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Since the invasion of Grenada was morally wrong in and of itself, subsidiary actions by invading troops within that context are de facto morally wrong. Discuss.
posted by Rumple at 10:59 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Over 20,000 people answered the lifeboat one, while only 3,000 answered trolley a and trolley b.

The implication is obvious: Ron Paul groupies would throw you from the lifeboat.
posted by Rumple at 11:04 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of this nugget about hypothetical situations and pacifism: What would you do if?
posted by hala mass at 11:10 AM on November 25, 2007


Years ago I used to have a page-a-day calendar that posed some sort of moral dilemma each day that supposedly had no right or wrong answer. I'd throw the question out to my co-workers and get some interesting discussions going. This post reminds me of one particular question - you and your immediate family are being held captive by terrorists. It is certain that everyone in the cell will eventually die. You alone see one method of escape, but you have to do it quickly, no time to explain it to anyone or take anyone with you. Do you save yourself, knowing your family will perish? Or do you stay, knowing you will die with them? I still remember one woman's answer: "I'd stay behind, because knowing my family one of them would yell 'Hey, Mary's sneaking out the window!' and then I'd be tortured before I was killed."
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:15 AM on November 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


People generally do what they have to do. I thought the smothered baby scenario was from The Diary of Anne Frank, but I can't find reference to it. Still, it's a situation that popped up not infrequently in the holocaust; in every story I've ever read where this happened, it was the mother, or less often the father, who smothered their own child.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:16 AM on November 25, 2007


Was invading Grenada morally wrong? I might agree with that, except that the Grenadians themselves seemed to love us after we went in. Still do, for that matter. Not *all* of them, of course. Not the communists, certainly. But the majority of them did end up really liking us and were glad we invaded and gave them time to form a democratic government (which still exists to this day). In fact, the day of the invasion is a holiday there; they consider it their independence day. If doing something for a population that causes them to be so happy they make a permanent celebratory holiday out of the date is immoral, well, that's the kind of immorality I can live with! ;)
posted by jamstigator at 11:21 AM on November 25, 2007


Here's one: You are by yourself in a room with a laptop connected to the Internet. You could be working and thus helping to ensure your family's survival, or you could be browsing, semi-conscious, through 99 responses to a vapid article in one of America's most useless magazines. What do you do?

I am obviously one immoral motherfucker. At least I'm not smothering any babies, though.
posted by kozad at 11:28 AM on November 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


I killed that baby so fast I'm a little worried about what the other people will think of me.
posted by graventy at 11:28 AM on November 25, 2007


It is only assumption that smothering a baby, throwing someone off a lifeboat, or pushing someone in front of a train will actually save the lives of others. However, it is a certainty that your actions will smother and kill a baby, etc., and therefore immoral.

We don't know if the crying baby will in fact attract the soldiers, or if the soldiers will kill us.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:36 AM on November 25, 2007


Here's a fun one that goes to show how (at least for most people) the Utilitarian argument just doesn't fit with whatever intuitive moral sense we have: suppose you are a doctor in the emergency room with 10 people who all need transplants (one needs a heart, another needs a liver, another needs a kidney and so on) or they will die within the hour. There are no organs to transplant into them and none will be showing up in the next hour. The nurse hands you a gun and says: "Go shoot a healthy-looking person walking by on the street and we'll harvest his organs and save these ten people." If you couldn't bring yourself to pull the trigger, then you probably aren't a Utilitarian.
posted by ssg at 11:59 AM on November 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


Congratulations. You euthanized the Crying Companion Baby faster than any other test subject on record.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:19 PM on November 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


Guys, regardless of label and presentation, that's more of a thought exercise than a quiz. Yes, I'm sure you can think of various other ways out of the situations, but that's not the point. In all scenarios, you choose whether you sacrifice a life for others. The only thing that changes is how active and personal your role would be in sacrificing that life, and whether your life is also on the line. There is no objective reason to say you'd throw a switch to cause someone to die and save the others, but you couldn't push someone off a bridge, causing death, to save the others. Have you not played a role in someone's death in both cases? Why is one easier? The quiz is a mechanism to get you to give thought to certain questions. Also, what demiurge said.

I have very little respect for Time's treatment of most subjects, but this article was pretty interesting to me. So, books and covers and all that.
posted by zennie at 12:39 PM on November 25, 2007


Was invading Grenada morally wrong? I might agree with that, except that the Grenadians themselves seemed to love us after we went in. Still do, for that matter. Not *all* of them, of course. Not the communists, certainly.

I guess you also can't really count the people who were killed during the invasion, either. I mean, they're dead after all, so it's not like you could count them for either the "yea" or "nay" column.
posted by odinsdream at 1:07 PM on November 25, 2007


Well, I also think it's different if the person you are about to kill is doing something wrong or putting people into danger. Shooting at property is one thing, as opposed to stopping someone who is clearly killing others. In that quiz, the people you were supposed to kill were basically, it seemed, not harming anyone. It was just a question of the whether or not you feel that, by default, the lives of many are more valuable than the life of one.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:18 PM on November 25, 2007


There was a scene from a movie--it might have been Schindler's List but I can't recall. Anyway, there are a bunch of prisoners lined up, and the guard is chastising them because one of them stole extra food, but he doesn't know which one of them did it.

Now, he's told them if they don't finger the perpetrator, they'll each be executed on the spot. But of course, nobody answers because they're all moral people. And consequently he randomly picks one of the prisoners and shoots them in the head.

Then he repeats the question. You expect the same thing to happen over and over again, except one of the prisoners steps forward. The guard asks, "Did you steal the food?" to which the prisoner shakes their head No. "But you know who did, don't you?" says the guard. And the prisoner points to the guy that was just shot in the head and says, "He did it!"

You can't take human ingenuity out of the equation.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:22 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


agreed. I taught in Grenada for about a year just after the 'invasion'. While that by no means makes me an expert, the people (and I lived 'peace corps' style, as I always do, that's much of the charm of living in another country) the people by and large were so pro-American it was almost disconcerting. Obviously there was some dissent, and being a democracy that dissent was heard. I was personally 'cornered' a half dozen times, almost always by a few angry Commies. The Rastas invariably had my back. I mean it's a tiny nation, I stood out.
But too much about me.
The current, despotic government which had jamsoverthrown the elected one in '79 had in turn been overthrown in a Castro backed military coup and of course it's more complex than that, ASKED for help, and it was the US, along with the (then) 7 nations members of the newly formed OECS , and also Jamaica, among others that defeated a regieme that had allied with Cuba, and the USSR and was stockpiling weapons and building a freaking huge international airport a few hours from the US.
I'm rambling, suffice it to say that if there is any moral ambiguity about that war we all need to go back to wherever we came from (Africa I suppose) and flagellate ourselves in repentance for our evil freedom seeking ways.
Oh, and the national Thanksgiving Day is on 25, October, set aside precisely to commemorate this event.
It was an ill planed war, but as ill-planned wars go, it was a smashing success.
And thanks to jamstigator and others like him, including a former roommate, the nation is free and despite the devastating hurricanes Ivan and Emily, the economy is bustling.
Of course China has a lot to do with that, but it aint necessary an all bad thing.
Forgive the long outburst.
And my God, the wine is almost gone!
posted by dawson at 1:50 PM on November 25, 2007


dawson: And my God, the wine is almost gone!

Now that is a tragic situation. Clearly you are not moral unless you're willing to shoot someone to get more wine.
posted by localroger at 2:21 PM on November 25, 2007


And thanks to jamstigator and others like him, including a former roommate, the nation is free and despite the devastating hurricanes Ivan and Emily, the economy is bustling.

This is a good illustration of the artificiality of thinly sliced scenarios. Everything is the consequence of a whole lot of other things that came before it, and will be the cause of a whole lot of other things that come after it. Any good deed we can do is a consequence of evil deeds we and others have done, and vice versa.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:34 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


ssg said: suppose you are a doctor in the emergency room with 10 people who all need transplants (one needs a heart, another needs a liver, another needs a kidney and so on) or they will die within the hour. There are no organs to transplant into them and none will be showing up in the next hour. The nurse hands you a gun and says: "Go shoot a healthy-looking person walking by on the street and we'll harvest his organs and save these ten people." If you couldn't bring yourself to pull the trigger, then you probably aren't a Utilitarian.

Suppose a turkey is a uniform sphere of radius r = 0.5 m having the same density as water. The heat capacity of the turkey is then given by:

V * d * c = (4/3)(pi)(r^3)(d)(c) = (4/3)(pi)((50cm)^3)(1 ml/cm^3)(1g/ml)(4.2j/g K) = 2.1991e+006 j/K

Now suppose the oven is a cube 2m on each side which also happens to be a perfect black body. Assume all the radiation emitted by the oven is absorbed by the turkey. Assume the oven is at 500c, or 773.15 K.

Then using the Stefan–Boltzmann law, we find that the oven emits radiation at a rate of
(5.670e-8 W m^-2 K^-4) * (24m^2) * (773.15K)^4 = 4.8624e+005 W.

Suppose the turkey starts at freezing and we want it to end up at boiling; then we must raise its temperature by 100k, requiring 2.1991e+008 j to do this; at 4.8624e5 j/s, this will take 452.26 s, or 7.5 minutes.

If you do not think it takes 7.5 minutes to cook a turkey, you are probably not a physicist.
posted by Pyry at 2:34 PM on November 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


amyms, I don't know the specific movie you're remembering, but the scenario is fairly common in dramatizations about the Holocaust as an example of horrifyingly "humane" extremes forced by the inhumanity of the Nazis. It was referenced in The Pianist as well, wasn't it?
posted by desuetude at 2:43 PM on November 25, 2007


Echoing those upthread that these black-and-white kill-or-be-killed scenarios are just not realistic. The quiz seeks to force morality into this very extreme set of choices, but the interesting thing about people's sense of morality is just how situational and fuzzy and hard-to-pin down it really is.

I would try to comfort the child. If that didn't work, I would advocate rendering the child unconscious even if it had a chance of damaging the baby's health. But the explanations required to set up this scenario are bizarre -- how is this parentless baby traveling with this group anyway? This quiz makes me think...about how how dumb quizzes are.
posted by desuetude at 2:55 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


A couple of things:
Green With You mentioned the short story "The Lady or the Tiger?" There's a little-known sequel to that story called "The Discourager of Hesitancy (A continuation of “The Lady, or the Tiger?')".

miss lynster said:
But if the question was that I needed to jump onto the tracks and sacrifice myself to save other people, that would be an easier decision than killing someone else. I can easily sacrifice my best interests for the good of others,* but I feel like I wouldn't have any right to make the choice to end another life.
Er, not to impugn your moral character, but I really doubt this. This is the point others were trying to make about moral dilemmas. It's easy to say, sitting in your chair without any danger, that it's easier for you to sacrifice yourself than to kill someone. But you can't know what you'd really do in a situation where your life was literally on the line. Have you been in a situation where the choice was someone dying or you dying? (I suppose not, because you're still here, unless you broke your code and chose to let him die...) If not, I really don't think you, or anyone (me included) can say that you'd let yourself die to save someone else. I'm not saying anything about you personally, just that without being in such a situation I don't think we really know what our survival instincts would cause us to do.

Finally, Rumple's suggestion of a Ron Paul dilemma got me thinking...

You are part of a team that investigated the Twin Tower ruins. Through your investigation and your own research, you have learned that 9/11 was an inside job done by the Israelis through the US government to prevent the resumption of the gold standard. You have compiled this information into a file that contains everything needed to prove these allegations. Also, you have found through your research that the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, the Department of Education, and the IRS have been using this fiat curency to manipulate the media to prevent any information about the truth spreading, so that they can continue with their plan to flood the US with illegal immigrants whose children will be naturalized and thus usher in the creation of the North American Union ruled by Bush and the Neocons.

Simultaneously, you have information from a well-placed friend who was subsequently killed that Google and Apple are planning a merger in order to release a Linux-based, open-source car that runs on alternative fuel that doesn't create any carbon emissions.

You are late for work, and only have time to post one of these stories on Reddit. Which do you choose?
posted by Sangermaine at 3:04 PM on November 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


Pyry: The point is that Utilitarianism is an extreme philosophy that says that the right action is the one that maximizes total pleasure and minimizes total pain in every single situation. The example I gave is extreme so that it makes clear the conflict between a purely logical Utilitarian point of view and what most people would call normal human moral sense. If you'd like to say why that example doesn't work, then go right ahead.
posted by ssg at 3:18 PM on November 25, 2007


My point is that utilitarianism is like physics: the answers you get out of it are only as good as the assumptions that go in.

You have made a number of assumptions:
1) That the quality of life experienced by people with organ failure is the same as that of a healthy person
2) That after the transplant, the total number of years they will be expected to live is larger than that of a healthy person.
3) That is is equally bad to die from a disease than through violence.
4) That the cause of death of a person has no effect on how hard his/her family takes it.
5) That a random healthy person is an exact match for organ donation for any ten people, and that organ transplants have no risk of failure or complications.
6) That there will be no broader social impact when people learn that merely by walking by hospitals they may be cannibalized for parts (this is the big one).

Let's consider (6) in a bit more detail: if the doctor is punished (imprisoned for life), then maybe it would be moral, that one time. But you still have to consider the loss of reputation to the hospital and that the imprisoned doctor won't be able to help anyone in prison. Since the doctor would undoubtedly save more than ten other people were he not imprisoned, then this is still unlikely to be moral.

If the doctor is not punished, then this becomes permission for doctors to cannibalize healthy people for parts, which is going to have a massive detrimental effect on how people view doctors and medical care. Would you go to the doctor for a routine checkup if you knew you might be killed? I hope routine checkups don't serve any important health purpose, because people won't be going to them.

I can continue. The point is that we can 'suppose' that a turkey is a 0.5m sphere of water, but that doesn't make it so, and the completely wrong result one gets out of this calculation cannot be used as an argument against physics.

We can imagine a world where all of those assumptions are true, where a person can be sacrificed to completely restore ten people to perfect health and where the rest of the population does not change their behavior in light of this forced sacrifice, but that isn't our world. What utilitarianism says about that world has little relevance to the world we actually live in.
posted by Pyry at 4:12 PM on November 25, 2007


So Pyry, that was like a physicist's way of agreeing? Sweet.
posted by hank_14 at 4:18 PM on November 25, 2007


If you do not think it takes 7.5 minutes to cook a turkey, you are probably not a physicist.

I imagine that a turkey cooking at 500C/930F is done muy pronto, compadre. Dunno about 7.5 minutes, but still.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:49 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Utilitarianism seems to have bit of a problem with fluctuating results... Question 'Should we kill this guy?' gets certain 'No.' if there is no other information about the situation.

If we add some more information 'Because then we save these 10 from certain death.' - it gets 'Yes'.

Then when we add: 'And by doing so we teach that it is ok to kill if there are patients that need spare parts.' and other factors it goes to again to 'No'.

Suppose that there are more information that could turn the answer back to 'Yes'. And so on. The ethical answer is always the one that we got based on current information. So when it becomes ethical to stop gathering information and just be satisfied with the result? Ethical calculations lead to ethical Entscheidungsproblem, and to put stop point somewhere we have to reach outside of utilitarianism, as utilitarianist calculation about where we should stop utilitarian calculations leads back to the same loop.
posted by Free word order! at 4:54 PM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think that your argument, Pyry, misses the point that I'm trying to make. People have moral senses. They feel that things are wrong or right without having to make an Utilitarian calculation. My example is intended to provoke the immediate reaction that (at least I think) most people have that the killing would be wrong, which I think shows that people aren't Utilitarians.

All the same, I'll go through your points one by one here:

1) That the quality of life experienced by people with organ failure is the same as that of a healthy person
2) That after the transplant, the total number of years they will be expected to live is larger than that of a healthy person.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that 10 people would have greater pleasure than 1, even if they have shorter life spans and a lower quality of life.
3) That is is equally bad to die from a disease than through violence.
I don't think "bad" should have any place in an Utilitarian calculation.
4) That the cause of death of a person has no effect on how hard his/her family takes it. Again, ten to one? I doubt it.
5) That a random healthy person is an exact match for organ donation for any ten people, and that organ transplants have no risk of failure or complications.
So Utilitarianism only works out if certain conditions about medical practice are met?
6) That there will be no broader social impact when people learn that merely by walking by hospitals they may be cannibalized for parts (this is the big one).
Shouldn't the man on the street, if he is a good Utilitarian, willingly submit to the doctor's plan?
posted by ssg at 5:09 PM on November 25, 2007


Right, but I am a utilitarian, and I think the killing is wrong on utilitarian grounds, so this example won't be able to sort utilitarians from non-utilitarians.

I think the comparison to physics is especially apt: quantum mechanics is fundamentally right [probably], but when your car is skidding on ice, being able to solve Schrodinger's equation for eigenstates isn't going to help you in the least. Likewise, utilitarianism is fundamentally right, but a lack of information makes it virtually impossible to apply in real life.

Regarding (1) and (2), let QOL be the quality of life and LE be the life expectancy, then utility is QOL * LE; it is not a stretch to think that a healthy person will live five times as long at twice the quality of life [a cursory googling suggests that the life expectancy after a heart or lung transplant is at most 10 years; a healthy 30 year old could easily live another fifty years].

Also, I haven't even taken into account the medical costs: it costs a lot more to keep a sick person alive than a healthy one, and those resources could be used elsewhere. That has to be taken into account as well.

Regarding (3): Of course 'bad' [and I mean bad as in terms of suffering; i.e., do you suffer more if you're shot than if you die from liver failure?] should figure into it; that's the whole basis of utilitarianism!

(4) It's unlikely to be a ten to one ratio, but 1.5 or maybe even 2 times is certainly reasonable, and since all these terms add, that's going to have an effect on the final answer as well.

(5): You can't apply utilitarianism to fantasy worlds and then import those results into this world and expect the results to still hold. Of course the actual state of medical practice has to figure into the calculation.

(6): Perhaps, but as with (5), a world populated by utilitarians is a fantasy. When doing calculations for this world, you have to take into account that most people aren't utilitarians, and that even utilitarians have a self-preservation instinct, their stated beliefs notwithstanding.

But all of this is, as you said, missing the point. No one, myself included, does these calculations, because there's no point. This accounting has inevitably missed a thousand other ways global utility is affected by the decision, so even this accounting is a ridiculous approximation whose result will bear little resemblance to the correct answer.

I am still a utilitarian in the same sense that I am a quantum-mechanian, but in the same way I don't apply Schrodinger's equation to my practical intuition of the way physical objects interact, actual utilitarian calculations figure very little into my normal behavior.
posted by Pyry at 6:05 PM on November 25, 2007


Er, not to impugn your moral character, but I really doubt this. This is the point others were trying to make about moral dilemmas. It's easy to say, sitting in your chair without any danger, that it's easier for you to sacrifice yourself than to kill someone. But you can't know what you'd really do in a situation where your life was literally on the line. Have you been in a situation where the choice was someone dying or you dying? (I suppose not, because you're still here, unless you broke your code and chose to let him die...) If not, I really don't think you, or anyone (me included) can say that you'd let yourself die to save someone else. I'm not saying anything about you personally, just that without being in such a situation I don't think we really know what our survival instincts would cause us to do.

Actually, thing is? While I know you say you aren't speaking about me personally, my statement was based on something. You don't know me or what I've been through, and as we were saying before, things are never so black and white. Nope, I haven't been through the exact scenario in some dumb quiz but that doesn't mean I haven't been tested in a life/death scenario or the like.

I can't say what I would do in any situation that hasn't happened to me. However, in past experience, I have definitely put myself in harm's way when I shouldn't have to prevent someone else being harmed. Numerous times. Because sometimes I'm just a ginormous fucking idiot.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:16 PM on November 25, 2007


Related (maybe too similar), Radio Lab's Morality episode: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28.
(Sorry, I do know how to properly create a link, but there's something about my work computer that won't let me do it.)
posted by Airhen at 6:27 PM on November 25, 2007


The reason that the "test" is all about ridiculous cases is that edge cases are where moral theories are really tested. You wouldn't kill a million people to make yourself $1,000,000? NOBODY FUCKING CARES. It's an easy one that anyone can happily answer, and nearly every moral philosophy agrees on it.

These edge cases are what we in philosophy use to examine the differences in philosophies and look at whether particular ideas really are helpful or not. I've got a Phil Club t-shirt that says "Warning: Uses Ridiculous Hypotheticals." Non-philosophy people laugh. Philosophy people just smile knowingly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:22 PM on November 25, 2007


And John Stuart Mill is pretty clear that, day-to-day, utilitarianism doesn't involve constant calculation; general rules like "Don't steal" and "don't kill" are useful because, usually, they'll produce the most utility. Calculation is really more something that you use when you're not sure what to do.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:25 PM on November 25, 2007



Nope, I haven't been through the exact scenario in some dumb quiz but that doesn't mean I haven't been tested in a life/death scenario or the like....
However, in past experience, I have definitely put myself in harm's way when I shouldn't have to prevent someone else being harmed.

But I think it does matter. When you say prevented someone from being harmed, do you mean physical harm? Physical harm in which you really, truly believed that your taking an action would result in your death but you did it anyway? Because I think those kinds of situations are entirely different from any other. I think that a situation in which you literally believe your life will be lost is different than one in which you think you'll be hurt. Going to great lengths to help a friend at considerable emotional/financial risk is taxing, but it isn't life-threatening. Jumping into a fight to help a friend or saving someone from a beating isn't life-threatening. It would have to be something akin to taking a bullet for someone. I'd gladly do and have done all of the former things to help others, and I'd like to think that if the time came I would step up and take that bullet, but I think it's so far removed from my experience because of the danger to my life that I can't accurately say what I would do.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:28 PM on November 25, 2007


To clarify, I think there's a difference between situations in which you know there is danger and you might even die, and a situation in which you know you will die if you take action. The former is a gamble. The latter is basically suicide, and there is a huge difference because of that.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:31 PM on November 25, 2007


My problem with these morality tests is along the lines of Civil_Disobedient's (they turn what would be good, moral decision making processes into something amoral because you now have the moral responsibility that comes with precognition) and KokuRyu's (It is only assumption that smothering a baby, throwing someone off a lifeboat, or pushing someone in front of a train will actually save the lives of others. However, it is a certainty that your actions will smother and kill a baby, etc., and therefore immoral.)

Not only is real life more uncertain, but causality is often entangled. I'm not solely reacting to a situation, but I'm co-determining what "the situation" is. Sorry to get all post-modern about this, but it's true.

My friend and I were discussing the idea of owning a gun, and whether we would shoot to kill intruders to save children in the house. I said, I might own a gun, but I wouldn't want to kill them. But everything short of that that I could think of doing with the gun (yelling threats, shooting at their leg) escalated the violence in the situation such that I'd be much more likely to have to kill or be killed. And there were definitely situations we'd survive if we presented ourselves as defenseless women/children who posed no threat. By expecting it, I help create the kill-or-be-killed scenario.

The other thing I don't like about the quiz is that it implies that logically, the best thing to do is to kill the baby, and then it gets you to mentally wonder whether you personally would have the toughness to do so (the wording asks "could you?" not "do you even think it would be right to?"). I found myself mentally rehearsing the moment when I overcame the shock of realizing there's a single person on that other track. So why get people to try to convince themselves to do things that their immediate responses say are immoral?
posted by salvia at 11:32 PM on November 25, 2007


So why get people to try to convince themselves to do things that their immediate responses say are immoral?

Do you believe that your immediate responses are the best determiner of what is moral?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:54 AM on November 26, 2007


Pope Guilty: I'm familiar with philosophy's ridiculousness. I translate philosophy for a living, so thousands of ridiculous examples have passed through my hands. But the examples should at least be relevant and throw light on the subject. Utilitarianism's examples of moral decision always involve some comparison between two quantities, which I find a distortion of moral decision-making and a distraction. Utilitarians use these examples because they always want to insist on a single axis of value, which I think is a gross distortion of moral reasoning.

Also, you mentioned the general rules of utilitarianism. So in ssg's example, the utilitarian wouldn't go out and shoot a man for his organs ... because it might set a bad example for society and lead to more shootings. But if that's the utilitarian's only reason for not doing it, it still makes him a monster. Just like if my only reason for not stomping on babies is that I just bought new shoes, I'm still a monster.
posted by creasy boy at 1:01 AM on November 26, 2007


But if that's the utilitarian's only reason for not doing it, it still makes him a monster.

First, it's a massive and despicable smear that that would be a utilitarian's only reason for not going out and smashing some babies or killing hoboes for organs. Second, such a person would be a monster only if a deontological moral theory is correct.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:10 AM on November 26, 2007


The film with the baby smothering incident is "Guns of Navarone".
posted by biffa at 3:17 AM on November 26, 2007


Well, I don't mean to smear actual utilitarians, who are probably as good or bad as anyone else, but rather the utilitarian philosophy. And if you look closely I wasn't accusing utilitarians of killing babies either, it was an analogy.

If utilitarianism states that the utility of the result is the measure of moral good, and if this "utility" includes saving of lives, then in all of the above examples it would at first, prima facie, seem to be in accordance with utilitarianism to sacrifice the one to save the others, even if this means killing an innocent person. I say prima facie because I am aware that there is both act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism and rule utilitarians would argue that the rules like "never kill innocents" have greater utility on average, and so we uphold rules as absolute rules because they are generally (but not absolutely) useful. This means first of all that the utilitarian acts as if certain rules are absolute, because acting this way is generally on average better in its results -- but the utilitarian secretly knows that the rules are not absolute, but rather dependent upon their general usefulness. This also means, as a corrolary, that the utilitarian might have to consider making an exception to the rule as long as no-one finds out -- i.e. as long as the rule would continue to be publicly upheld as absolute. And thirdly, while killing the hobo to save 10 others with his organs accords with act utilitarianism and seems prima facie to be in accord with utilitarianism generally, the rule utilitarian would decide against this for the following reason: because the larger effect of breaking the rule or allowing oneself to make exceptions to the rule would have a worse effect beyond the initial equation of the one person vs. ten people. I don't think this is a "smear", this is quite simply, as far as I know it, utilitarian philosophy. And there is something missing from this chain of reasoning. What is missing is the unconditional value of the hobo's life, the fact that he is not just a quantity in some calculation, that he is an end in himself, etc... So while I'm aware that most utilitarians would not kill a hobo for his organs, my claim is that the reason that they are able to give as utilitarians for not doing this is not sufficient and contrary to our moral intuitions, which was the point of ssg's example. This is also why I think that most utilitarians are not really utilitarians, precisely because they are not monsters but quite normal and sane citizens of the world; their theory of morality describes their own morality rather poorly.
posted by creasy boy at 4:09 AM on November 26, 2007


This also means, as a corrolary, that the utilitarian might have to consider making an exception to the rule as long as no-one finds out -- i.e. as long as the rule would continue to be publicly upheld as absolute.

Incoherent. Either you're positing that the morality rests in its judgers (the populace), which is silly as hell, or you're positing that the reason rule utilitarians (who I'm not defending, because they're basically deontologists who have realised that deonotology is stupid but want to have their rules-based morality anyway) are in favor of rules as tools of public policy, which they are also not. A rule utilitarian would never make an exception to the rules, as that would be the behavior of an act utilitarian.

And thirdly, while killing the hobo to save 10 others with his organs accords with act utilitarianism and seems prima facie to be in accord with utilitarianism generally, the rule utilitarian would decide against this for the following reason: because the larger effect of breaking the rule or allowing oneself to make exceptions to the rule would have a worse effect beyond the initial equation of the one person vs. ten people.

Act utilitarians also have reasons not to kill hoboes for their organs.

I don't think this is a "smear", this is quite simply, as far as I know it, utilitarian philosophy.

It's as if you've had the basics explained to you over a family dinner but haven't read Mill or anything, or ever written a paper on it, or taken a class in ethics, or...

And there is something missing from this chain of reasoning. What is missing is the unconditional value of the hobo's life, the fact that he is not just a quantity in some calculation, that he is an end in himself, etc...

You have yet to show that he is, and we have hundreds of years of philosophical writing that demonstrates just what a stupid idea Kant's ethical theories were.

So while I'm aware that most utilitarians would not kill a hobo for his organs, my claim is that the reason that they are able to give as utilitarians for not doing this is not sufficient and contrary to our moral intuitions, which was the point of ssg's example.

And once again, you suck at utilitarianism and you continue to believe that your moral intuitions are in any sense meaningful.

This is also why I think that most utilitarians are not really utilitarians, precisely because they are not monsters but quite normal and sane citizens of the world; their theory of morality describes their own morality rather poorly.

Once again, you don't know what you're talking about, but feel free to write hundreds of words about it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:18 AM on November 26, 2007


Also, paragraphs, for the love of God, paragraphs.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:18 AM on November 26, 2007


First off, let me state for the record: I'm an agnostic. I don't insist there is a god, because I've never seen evidence sufficient to prove to me that there is. I quit going to church when I was five, because even at that age I'd asked enough questions and gotten enough implausible answers that my religious upbringing (Lutheran) had been usurped by logic and left me a realist.

I basically have my own personal Three Laws of Morality. The first is, "Survive, whatever it takes." That one can probably generate actions that some might view as immoral. But it's also something that is as natural to humans (and just about every other living thing) as eating. That's one you can use to make quick decisions when quick decisions are necessary, because it's as much instinct (or more) as it is thought.

Steal food if I'm starving? Well, I'd ask first and see how that went, but if it didn't go well, then okay, stealing it is. Sacrifice my life to save a baby? Very doubtful. Sacrifice my life to save five friends? Possible, unless it was a quick-action-required situation, in which case probably not. Sacrifice my life to save several friends, knowing that any other action would be likely to result in *all* of us dying? Okay, sure, since either way I'm screwed, so I'd certainly want to save my friends if I could.

My Second Law is something along the lines of what Jesus taught: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's been phrased other ways too, of course, and is similar to karma, or: "What goes around comes around." Or, "Love everyone, trust a few, do harm to none." I had to modify that a bit during my military service, to something like, "Love everyone except the enemy, trust a few friends, do harm only when you know those you're about to harm deserve the harm you're about to dispense, before you commence with the dispensing." A little clumsy, that, but military service requires some morality modifications to do the job. Complete pacifists make shitty soldiers anyway.

My Third Law is something like, "If it doesn't violate the first two Laws, do whatever I can to leave the world a better place than I found it." That one's very general, so I get to use my discretion. The last year that basically involved giving some money to the World Wildlife Federation (save the animals!), some to the National Arbor Day Foundation (save the trees!), some to the Planetary Society (get off this f-ing planet!), and I paid to have 120 trees planted (save the air!).

Those three basic precepts have stood me very well in my life. I'm alive because of the first one, and because of the second one I have made many good friends. And because of the third, hopefully the world is at least a little better off because of me. And I swear, there almost has to be something to the karma concept, because I've done a decent bit of good for a lot of people, and it really has come back around. I didn't do good because I *expected* good to come back around (I wasn't playing a game for karma points or anything), but still and all, good things have come around for me anyway.

I am by no means trying to get people to subscribe to *my* moral precepts. That's too much like proselytizing, and religious I am not. I think everyone probably needs to figure out their own particular moral precepts anyway, because everyone's situation is different. What works for me may not work for everyone (or anyone) else. Some people care more about the survival of others than they do about their own, which I think is great...but that's certainly not me. If that *were* me, I'd have been dead a long time ago, and you'd be looking at a blank screen. ;)
posted by jamstigator at 5:40 AM on November 26, 2007


Pope Guilty: I remember us disagreeing about philosophy before, and we will probably continue to disagree. You strike me as someone whose basic philosophical tendency is quite the opposite of mine. For the record, I will feel free to continue to write words and even paragraphs about opinions you may disagree with, and calling both me and Kant stupid will not convince me of your position.

Yes there have been hundreds of years of criticism of Kantian moral philosophy. The same could be said of utilitarianism, virtue ethics, or any theory that is old.

As to the role of moral intuitions: if ssg's example shows that the consequences of utilitarianism go against our moral intuitions -- which is all he intended to show with the example -- then this is an interesting fact; not necessarily decisive, but interesting. One of the criticisms of Kantian moral theory is the example of the victim hiding in the attic, the persecutors knock on the door and ask if he's there, etc...it seems to follow from Kantian theory, and Kant thought it did, that you are obligated to tell the truth here. This is a criticism of Kantian theory precisely because people think: well, that's crazy, and if it follows from Kantian theory and the Kantian theory can't be right. This seems to me to suggest the role that moral intuitions play in moral theory, namely as a touchstone of what can't possibly be right and what a theory has to be able to explain. But if you see this differently I'd be interested in hearing why. Feel free to write words and paragraphs about it.

I have read Mill and written papers about Mill, although I admit is was a while ago, and I have taken classes in ethics. I know that if a rule utilitarian made an exception, he/she wouldn't be a rule utilitarian; I was trying to suggest that rule utilitarianism is an unstable position. I'll admit that I haven't read much about act utilitarianism -- as I know Mill, he seems to be a rule utilitarian -- so I'd be interested in hearing the reasons that act utilitarians have to not kill the hobo for his organs. I can't see any reasons, given that the whole scenario is designed precisely such that killing the hobo for his organs would produce more utility, i.e. it seems designed precisely to put the act utilitarian in a corner. Bonus points if you can tell me these reasons without insulting me.
posted by creasy boy at 6:06 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


But I think it does matter. When you say prevented someone from being harmed, do you mean physical harm? Physical harm in which you really, truly believed that your taking an action would result in your death but you did it anyway?

Not your business, but yes. But in that situation you don't pause, stand there and think "If I do this, I really, truly, believe that I am taking an action that would really believe it might result in my death but I think I shall do it anyway." It happens in a split second and you do not think of anything other than that something must be done. And sometimes your body just does it. If it's your instinct to do something, you don't necessarily think of it as a choice, you just go on autopilot and it happens in an instant. I guess I'm weirder than I thought because I'm not even sure why this is difficult for someone to fathom.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:02 AM on November 26, 2007


FWIW, from my experience it usually happens like this:

1) Something bad is about to happen.
2) Adrenaline kicks in. You react.
3) You struggle through whatever it is.
4) The other person gets saved.
5) You get saved.
6) You try to calm down and are a bit in shock.
7) You think, "Oh my God, what did I just do? I could've been killed."
posted by miss lynnster at 7:07 AM on November 26, 2007


miss lynnster, we want stories.

And if you have a story about a catapult and a trainwreck, tell that one first.
posted by creasy boy at 7:19 AM on November 26, 2007


On second thought, I really don't know why I would be surprised that not everyone would relate. Now that I think about it, during those events I remember being surrounded by people standing around... not lifting a finger... just standing still like statues as though they're watching tv while people (including me) are screaming at them to get help. (Gotta say, it's such a frustrating and helpless feeling to scream into a crowd for help and see nobody even move in response. Just blank eyes staring back at you.) I guess they were all standing there thinking, "If I do this, I really, truly, believe that I am taking an action that would really believe it might result in my death so I shall just observe." So maybe I'm the one that's unusual because I don't relate to that.

Things like this... I just don't get them. This woman took her children to a crowded pier on a cold day... and people watched her strip off their clothes, throw them into the ocean and drown them. There's a huge restaurant there (had Thanksgiving dinner there, actually -- the view's really wonderful) and I saw a news report where diners there all talked about how they witnessed her do this, but nobody stopped dining. From the reports I read, only one person even called 911. There were hundreds of witnesses and nobody dove in to help, people looked on as her children struggled and sank. Apparently some assumed it might be normal to throw your kids over a pier for a swim or something. It just floored me.

One thing I find interesting is the difference in Good Samaritan laws worldwide. They are written to reduce bystanders' hesitation to assist so that they don't worry they'll be sued if they get involved and help someone, right? Well in America they also imply that no person is required to give aid of any sort to a victim. But from what I've read, in other countries, Canada for example, the laws imply that you ARE required to aid others. In Quebec it's "a duty on everyone to help a person in peril." Other places it's only if a child is endangered. But the implication is that you are supposed to help others, and in turn they are supposed to help you.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:05 AM on November 26, 2007


The actual things that happened I don't really like to talk about. Sorry. Just kind of personal.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:08 AM on November 26, 2007


Let's start with the fact that killing the hobo would be bad for me, as it would erode my human compassion and internal taboo against murder. Then let's move on to the harm done to society when society becomes a place where, if your utility drops below a certain point, you are subject to murder in order to harvest your organs. The harm created would be massive in scale and would far outweigh the lives of ten people.

Also, Mill is in no sense a rule utilitarian. While he argues that certain rules like "don't kill" and "don't steal" should be followed in everyday life, this was because such rules reduced the amount of calculation you had to sit around doing and let you get on with life while mostly serving to increase utility. You could stand around calculating every action, but why bother when a set of rules provides, in obvious situations, the most utility? For tough cases, though, you take a moment and calculate.

As to your feeling insulted, please, continue to post ill-informedly, I'll pretend you sound like you've read things by utilitarians, and... wait, no, I won't.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:47 AM on November 26, 2007


Pope Guilty, the way you're characterizing Mill above does seem to make him out to be a rule utilitarian, at least in cases where the rules don't conflict.
posted by inconsequentialist at 10:07 AM on November 26, 2007


"Let's start with the fact that killing the hobo would be bad for me, as it would erode my human compassion and internal taboo against murder. Then let's move on to the harm done to society when society becomes a place where, if your utility drops below a certain point, you are subject to murder in order to harvest your organs. The harm created would be massive in scale and would far outweigh the lives of ten people."

Indeed. As I said here: "because the larger effect of breaking the rule or allowing oneself to make exceptions to the rule would have a worse effect beyond the initial equation of the one person vs. ten people." I attributed this to the rule utilitarian. You say this holds of act utilitarianism. Well, maybe we differ in our understanding of act utilitarianism vs. rule utilitarianism. I defer to you on the exact formulation of this distinction. One way or another, your position is that killing the hobo would be bad because of the further consequences, basically: it would erode your own compassion, and it would erode standards in society. It's easy enough to concoct a scenario that takes care of these two consequences, in fact it's as easy as postulating it:

Ten patients are dying for want of different organs, a hobo is outside in the alley and quite healthy, you can kill him secretly so no-one finds out and he has no family or friends (thus taking care of the second condition) and you can take a drug that erases your memory of the incident (thus taking care of condition one). So the net result of killing him would be ten lives saved for his one.

For all this nitpicking, we haven't come much further. The utilitarian would call an option "moral" that flies in the face of our moral intuitions. This does not immediately make utilitarianism wrong but it is a significant result. The next question would then be: what do utilitarians think they are describing when they describe "morality" if it is independent of our moral intuitions? And where do they start if not from these intuitions? Morality is not like an object of nature that can be determined independent of our hunches. As I recall Mill, he seems to think that utilitarianism preserves the deepest moral intuitions of common sense, even if if disagrees with current policy or with the accepted justification of morality. So the conflict with these intuitions would already be relevant for the philosophy.

My impression at the time was that Mill's starting point was the simple Humean assumption that are only motivation comes from pleasure or pain, thus that the only good or bad are pleasure and pain. But then, when this sort of reductionism begins to conflict with more cherished sentiments and moral intuitions, he slides into a broader and vaguer conception of "happiness" rather than pleasure, a "happiness" which might mean something like "the fulfilled life". Also Isaiah Berlin wrote a long piece in the same vein about how Mill was actually a pluralist despite himself. If the criterion of the good is mere pleasure, as a mental state, then utilitarianism seems to me to conflict with our moral practice and to rely on an outdated motivational reductionism taken from Hume. If the criterion is some pluralistic and open conception of "happiness", then it seems to me no longer recognizable as utilitarianism, since it's hard to see how you could figure out what the "most" of this thing is, as if it were one single quality. If like Hare you change the criterion from "pleasure" to "people's interests", then you end up with something that looks superficially like Kantianism, but lacking the explanation of why these interests take on value.
posted by creasy boy at 10:24 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Morality is not like an object of nature that can be determined independent of our hunches.

I hesitate to wade in here, but some people think that it is independent. Moral realists think that there are such things as moral facts, and that "Killing a person is wrong" might be such a moral fact that is true or false in precisely the same way that "Moscow is the capital of Russia" is true or false--no matter what our hunches are about it.

Also, one point of the trolley cases is to show that our moral intuitions sometimes screw things up. If you look at the survey, most people would pull the lever to divert the train to kill the one to save the five, but not push the one to save the five. These results are consistent with good experimental results. This suggests that people think that there's a morally significant difference between pushing someone to kill them and pulling a lever to kill them. A lot of people think that can't be right. Sometimes, our moral theories can inform us when our moral intuitions should be revised. This is, for example, the project of animal rights activists who try to make the case that we can't defend the rights of human beings while violating the rights of animals, if our moral theories are correct.

I like how you're framing the debate between consequentialists and deontologists, creasyboy, but another good way to think about it is that consequentialists have an easy time explaining what value is and a hard time explaining how the valuable can be action-guiding, and deontologists have an easy time explaining how the valuable can be action-guiding, but a hard time explaining what value is. Normative ethics is kind of a tar pit.
posted by Kwine at 11:12 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


"This suggests that people think that there's a morally significant difference between pushing someone to kill them and pulling a lever to kill them."

For me this is the biggest tar-pit -- how we describe actions. The distinction between pushing the guy and pulling the lever is of course not at all a natural one. For me this is more evidence that morality is not a set of real properties. I read some similar research a few years ago with surveys showing that, if the CEO of a company does something that helps people, but he only did it to increase profit, no-one would say that the CEO intentionally helped people; whereas if she does something that pollutes the shit out of a town, but only does it to increase profit, we all say that she intentionally polluted the town. There are probably lots of similar assymetries. I probably harshed on these Time questions too much.

Anyway, you're right that my bias is showing. I took a whole seminar once on moral realism and still never understood it -- it just seemed crazy to me. It wasn't just leap from factuality to action-guidance...which could be seen an empirical psychological problem... but the leap from something being a fact, to why it should guide your action. Maybe this is what you mean. It seems to me that any fact is just a fact, and I am in principle capable of valuing or devaluing it variously. In other words I couldn't see how moral realism overcomes the naturalist fallacy. Moore's solution, a special kind of factuality, also struck me as rather silly.
posted by creasy boy at 11:34 AM on November 26, 2007


I forgot to say: yeah so the realists can explain what a value is more easily, but until they can explain why it's a value I don't buy their explanation.
posted by creasy boy at 11:40 AM on November 26, 2007


You're absolutely right about action descriptions playing a central role. There's also impact from philosophy of language and mind. You're puzzled by a central problem in metaethics--We talk about moral judgments as though they are objective things, and we think that moral judgments can be action-guiding, but we don't think that objective things are action-guiding. Just because I believe that Moscow is the capital of Russia doesn't mean that I'm motivated to do anything in particular--it's bad news if moral judgments are like that. But it sure seems like I'm saying something that is true when I say, "Killing is wrong," doesn't it?

There are many proposals to solve the problem--Michael Smith lays out the terrain quite nicely in The Moral Problem. He's a very clear writer and I recommend it highly if you're interested. It seems like you're attracted to solving the problem by denying that moral talk is objective--this is the path of noncognitivists like Simon Blackburn and Alan Gibbard. Blackburn sucks at writing, but he's a smart guy; he solves the problem by proposing a new kind of mental state, the 'besire'. It's factive, like a belief, but capable of motivating like a desire. Of course, what the hell are besires supposed to be, you might wonder?
A realist would say that there's nothing inherently action-guiding about a moral judgment--it only guides you insofar as you're a good person. I can coherently judge that stabbing a baby is wrong, but I am not motivated not to do, because I really want to do it and I'm weak-willed, say. It's an exciting time to be thinking about this stuff--a lot of these opposing proposals are out there and it's far from clear who is right.
posted by Kwine at 2:41 PM on November 26, 2007


Yeah, that's why I like the Kantianism so much, in its basic outline...morality is objective but not factual. Also there's a Korsgaard piece in the Kingdom Of Ends, I think "skepticism about reasons", where she argues that there can also be a weakness of will in purely instrumental rationality as well as in Kantian's practical rationality (when you want and end, and know that x is a means to an end, but fail to want or undertake x), that a reason can always fail to motivate as a matter of empirical psychology, but can also in principle always motivate. Seems to me a powerful counterargument to a lot of the objections.

I've read Blackburn stuff where he compares moral qualities to humor -- which I found an appealing analogy...the funny is not a natural kind, obviously, but not an arbitrarily projectible quality either...it also seems to skirt the line between fact and deontological validity, but it was just the sketch of a possible program. "Besires" sounds less appealing.
posted by creasy boy at 3:04 PM on November 26, 2007


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