Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Runaway Trains and Moral Intuitions

In this week's post, Bethel philosophy alumnus Michael Hands considers two puzzles about runaway trains, and talks about where our moral intuitions surrounding these puzzles might come from.


A runaway train hurtles towards 5 people tied to a track. A railroad switch sits just a few feet from you. Flipping the switch diverts the train to another track. A single person is tied to this other track.

Do you flip the switch?

If you're like most people, you do. Surveys show that around 90% of respondents say they'd flip the switch. Their reason? Better to save 5 at the expense of 1.

Now imagine the same scenario: A train is bearing down on 5 people tied to a track. Only this time you're standing on a footbridge above the track. Next to you stands a fat man. If pushed, the fat man will fall to his death, blocking the train and saving the 5 people behind him.

Do you push him?

Most people—75% to 90%, depending on which surveys you believe—don't push the fat man.

But what happened to the logic of saving 5 at the expense of 1? What changed?

Some argue the salient difference between the two cases is emotional. In the abstract, you're okay with killing someone by pulling a lever, but you don't like pushing anybody. Not only wouldn't you push someone, you also think it's wrong for someone else to push the fat man.

In both cases, you've made a moral judgment or an evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of a given action. Our life is full of moral judgments, though fortunately most don't involve locomotive catastrophe.

The field of moral psychology asks how we make moral judgments.  On this question, there are two competing views: rationalism and sentimentalism.

As the name suggests, rationalists believe that individual reason plays the primary role in forming moral judgments. According to rationalism, moral dilemmas engage our reasoning process. We call to mind the facts of the situation and reflect on the relevant principles. When our internal dialectic ends, we render moral judgment.

While rationalists exalt reason, sentimentalists are decidedly more pessimistic about its role in moral decision-making. According to sentimentalists, reason is like a puppet show with emotions pulling the strings. Or, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, emotion is the "dog wagging its rationalist tail.” He offers an alternative to the rationalist model of moral decision-making: the Social Intuitionist Model (SIM). 

Like all sentimentalists, Haidt believes that the majority of our moral judgments are driven by emotional intuitions or instincts, not reasoned deliberation. However, he introduces a new dimension to the discussion: social vs. private decision-making.

According to Haidt, our moral intuitions are rarely formed in a vacuum of private reflection. Instead they are formed interpersonally. As social creatures, we look to each other for clues about what to believe or how to act. A kind of finger in the air. We are so adept at this that we often don't realize we are aggregating and internalizing our neighbors’ beliefs. Once our social intuition is formed, reason acts like a “press secretary,” assuming the podium only to justify our intuitions to others. This is the basic insight of the Social Intuitionist Model: that social forces shape the emotions that determine our moral judgments.

This is a brief sketch of two competing positions in the field of moral psychology: rationalism and sentimentalism. Which do you find more compelling? Would you flip the switch but not push the fat man? Why or why not?
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