The Trolley Problem

If the “Trolley Problem” sounds unfamiliar to you, then don’t look it up on Google just yet.

Instead, download this mp3 of the recent episode of This American Life (begin listening at the 5:05 mark).

It’s a great explanation of the moral thought experiment… and it has sound effects!

Afterwards, you can check out Wikipedia for more. Richard Dawkins also discusses the Trolley Problem in The God Delusion with some depth (pages 223-226 in the American hardcover edition).

As Dawkins mentions, “there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers” in their responses to the dilemmas.

The whole point of all this is that the evidence shows us that a certain kind of morality is an evolutionary adaptation. (Correction: As Larry and Alonzo explain in the comments, it’s not an “evolutionary adaptation” as I said. To quote Larry, explanations could include “social conditioning and rationalism.”) It’s innate. It does not come from religion or God.

My favorite part of the TAL story is this summarizing line from Harvard Psychology professor Josh Greene:

“We think of basic human morality as being handed down from on high and it’s probably better to say that it was handed up from below.”



[tags]atheist, atheism, Trolley Problem, This American Life, Wikipedia, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, God, religion, Josh Greene[/tags]

  • http://michaeldepaula.com Michael DePaula

    Ah yes, but to this the Christian responds, “It was God who put it within us.” Alas, they have an answer for everything!

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    The whole point of all this is that the evidence shows us that a certain kind of morality is an evolutionary adaptation. It’s innate. It does not come from religion or God.

    The idea that an evolutionary basis of the expression of morality would negate the idea of a God is one of the sillier ideas current in stylish atheism. It would, I’m sorry to have to point it out, have exactly the opposite effect if such a genetic basis was widely believed to exist. The idea that a God who created the entire physical universe from the greatest structures down to the tiniest particles and forces and keeps it in motion would be powerless to direct genes is one of the greater lapses in Dawkinsite wishful thinking. I guarantee you that particularly Calvinists would welcome such a thing and would look in such a genetic mechanism for proof of divine predestination. They would say it was proof positive that there was a God who wanted to be known to us and that he had encoded belief in our very genes. And there would be no way to disprove their assertion.

    I don’t believe that the genetic explaination of what we call morality or religion is remotely anything like science, it’s convenient storytelling. In 2007 it is nothing but an Evolutionary Psychology myth seeking to explain a very complex series of behaviors, which may or may not actually be the same sort of thing and to claim a physical basis for it without having to actually produce the evidence of such. It’s typical of the shoddiness of the social scienes. When you start out with a rigid orthodoxy, strict adaptationism, the temptation to come up with explanatory myths seems to be irresistable, Stephen Gould called this kind of practice “just-so stories”.

  • http://contrapunctus.net/ Chris League

    Credit where due — this story was produced for a very quirky and interesting WNYC program called Radio Lab. I heard it about a year ago via their podcast. Nice that TAL is giving RL some exposure, but I thought I’d let people know, because their entire episode entitled ‘Morality’ is worth a listen. It’s not strictly a skeptics’ show, but many of the episodes revolve around the cognitive sciences: ‘Where am I’ is a great one, on the mind-body problem. ‘Detective stories’ is one of my favorites, and ‘Space’ features skeptic heroes Ann Druyan and Neil de Grasse Tyson. The recent ‘Placebo’ is even a bit of a challenge to non-believers because it explores the importance of (unjustified) belief in recovery from illness!

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Sorry, but absolutely none of our morality comes from a genetic source. The concept of ‘morality’ is fundamentally at odds with this possibility.

    I cover this in a posting on my Atheist Ethicist site in a posting, “The Genetic Morality Delusion“.

    These types of tests may show that we DO exhibit certain types of preferences, but they completely fail to show that we SHOULD exhibit those preferences.

    The idea that “what is good is that which is loved by our genes” generates the same type of euthyphro objections as “what is good is that which is loved by God”.

    If we choose, “X is good because it is loved by our genes”, then the most horrendousl acts can be good.

    If we say, “X is loved by our genes because it is good,” then we still need an independent standard of what is good.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    While I am in the neighborhood, let me raise another problem with the idea that this represents evidence for some sort of genetic morality.

    Exactly what evidence does a study like this offer to show that those who hold the majority position are right, and those who hold the minority position are wrong? If the latter option became more ‘popular’, would that then make it the right answer?

    Are we going to hold that those who give one answer are genetically superior to those who give a different answer? On what grounds do we evaluate one genetic answer as ‘better than’ the other? What are we going to do with those who are genetically inferior, because they do not pick the right answer?

    If you say that concepts of right and wrong answer make no sense, then the study itself makes no sense – because the study is asking people about which option is the right thing to do and which is not. It is not asking them about their preferences. There is a fundamental conceptual difference between a preference (I prefer chocolate) and a moral statement (It is obligatory for everyone to eat chocolate).

    I grant that it is very common for people to infer moral judgments from personal preferences, and that personal preferences often have a genetic origin. However, the fact that a particular line of reasoning is common does not make it sound.

    In this case, “I prefer that everybody do X” to “Everybody has an obligation to do X” is not sound reasoning.

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/ Larry Moran

    Friendly Atheist says,

    The whole point of all this is that the evidence shows us that a certain kind of morality is an evolutionary adaptation. It’s innate.

    It shows no such thing. There’s no evidence of a genetic component for this type of behavior and there’s a perfectly reasonable alternative; namely social conditioning and rationalism. The real problem arrives with the Fat Man corollary but, even there, the reluctance to kill the fat man is not based on any genetic predisposition to avoid doing the right thing. It’s based on how you will be perceived by others if you push the fat man in front of the trolley. It’s better to do nothing ’cause you won’t be blamed if you avoid the problem but you could be in a lot of trouble for murdering the fat man.

    Imagine that there were only eight people alive in the world after a massive pandemic. Would you push the fat man in that case? Of course you would.

    Morality (ethics) is based on having an ability to reason and recognizing that there are certain kinds of behavior that lead to a smoothly functioning society. Atheists and believers both use this form of reasoning about ethical problems. The difference is that believers are confused about the source.

  • Aj

    I listen to the radio lab podcast. This is the episode from season 2 called Morality from last year.

    Radio Lab: Morality

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    From Alonzo,
    because the study is asking people about which option is the right thing to do and which is not. It is not asking them about their preferences.

    Actually, I’m pretty sure the study asks neither of these questions, but rather which option the subjects would personally choose.

    But even if that weren’t the case, it’s such a trivial point you make here. Even moral relativists (like me) commonly speak and think in terms of “right” and “wrong” without always publicly disclaiming the standard to which those relative concepts are measured (e.g. “for me”). It’s a matter of convenience. Internally, though, we recognize that whenever we speak of such things as if they were objective truths, really they have an implicit “for me” or “by the standards of this culture” associated with them.

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    Alonzo also said:
    These types of tests may show that we DO exhibit certain types of preferences, but they completely fail to show that we SHOULD exhibit those preferences.

    Alonzo, my impression is that you are assuming that some absolute standard of morality exists (and this is the context in which what we “should” do is defined). What’s your basis for making this assumption?

    What’s wrong with saying that our sense of right and wrong seem to be explainable in principle by natural causes alone? That doesn’t rule out the supernatural, nor does it require it. If it isn’t required, it shouldn’t be included.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    godma, there isn’t any way to know if a supernatural cause is excludable in a problem of “our sense of right and wrong”. In order to use that kind of exclusion you first have to have an agreed upon definition of a question and to have sufficient information to have some idea of what is relevant and what isn’t relevant to the solution of the question. To assert that even the definition of what “right and wrong” is settled is not an exercise in logic but in willful ignorance of the complexity of the problem. There is no way to deal with a question of this sort with science, it is beyond the methods and tools of science. That many people find that an unsatisfactory situation doesn’t make the pretended reliability of their assertions any more than wishful thinking.

    I define morality as being unwilling to unnecessarily harm other beings and the positive action of preventing and lessening harm to other beings. It’s not science that leads me to that view, it’s experience and history. Living beings have inherent rights, it is what the results of the assumption that they don’t have inherent rights that proves to my satisfaction that believing in them is sensible. I leave the question of where those rights come from as an open question because no one has come up with an objective answer to it.

  • Steelman

    Alonzo said: “Sorry, but absolutely none of our morality comes from a genetic source. The concept of ‘morality’ is fundamentally at odds with this possibility.”

    And then, in a second post:

    “I grant that it is very common for people to infer moral judgments from personal preferences, and that personal preferences often have a genetic origin. However, the fact that a particular line of reasoning is common does not make it sound.”

    You say none of our morality has a genetic origin, and then say morality based on personal preferences (which often have a genetic origin) is very common. So which is it? Impossible or very common (which I take to mean normative)? Your essay you linked to delves a little deeper into the subject. I agree fully with Atheist Observer’s contribution in the comments to your essay, by the way.

    That bit of never vs. often confusion aside, I think we agree that these studies tell us only about moral intuitions, that those intuitions come from both nature and nurture, and that these intuitions are not a proper basis for any ethical system. Nonetheless, I do think these studies serve an important purpose in telling us what most people think about ethical dilemmas, and why they might think what they do. I didn’t listen to the mp3; did they claim that morality is wholly genetic?

    Are we going to hold that those who give one answer are genetically superior to those who give a different answer? On what grounds do we evaluate one genetic answer as ‘better than’ the other? What are we going to do with those who are genetically inferior, because they do not pick the right answer?

    Genetics aside, we already hold that those who give one answer are morally superior to those who give a different answer, yes? However, we put morally inferior people in prison only for their morally inferior behavior, not for thinking the wrong way. We certainly don’t imprison people for incorrect test answers, although they can be denied employment on that basis (e.g. you can’t be a police officer if you don’t pass the psych-test). I don’t think the genetics question can be used to set societal moral standards unless the claim that morality is wholly based on genetics can be proven conclusively, a test for the correct “moral genes” can be administered, and it is proven that the effects of those “morally inferior” genes can be accurately predicted but never mitigated. I’m not sure those criteria will ever be met.

  • Kaleena

    And as Aj said. That whole episode from Radio Lab is pretty great on morality!

    How cool! I found these even before my cool blog told me about it!

    Enjoy the crazy sound effects…

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    olvlzl, it sounds like you have a disagreement with me, but I’m not sure on what point, exactly. I think we agree that we have no legitimate basis for explicitly excluding supernatural causes from our theories (nor have we one for explicit inclusion of them). But I also see an equivalence between “lack of explicit inclusion” and “implicit exclusion”, since we (try to) start fom a point of minimal assumptions (i.e. directly observable facts), then build up from there.

    I also agree with you that science generally doesn’t lead us to our moral senses, but rather they comes more from our instincts and upbringing. Then from that point on they might be tweaked and adjusted over time by rationalizing about them.

    What exactly did I say that you disagree with, and how?

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    godma

    Yes, I am aware that there are people who claim that moral statements contain an implicit ‘for me’ at the end of them. There are also people who claim that morality comes from God.

    Both views are mistaken.

    The standard interpretation of ‘X is wrong’ means ‘it is wrong for anybody in like situations to do X’. This is the principle of universalizability.

    This view is also entirely inconsistent with the nature and substance of moral argument. There is absolutely no sense in debating issues that have an implicit ‘for me’ at the end. Yet, moral issues are at the heart of a great deal of debate.

    A third problem is that if there is no reason to choose one option over another, then why choose? Why say that abortion is either permissible or impermissible unless there is some reason to choose the proposition “abortion is permissible” over “abortion is impermissible?”

    And if these reasons for choice are personal, then the ‘for me’ interpretation of morality says it is a sufficiently good reason to kill (or torture) somebody that the killer or torturer feels no sense of aversion to killing or torturing others.

    Anyway, I reject the ‘for me’ interpretation of morality as being even less coherent (and less rational) than religion-based morality.

    Having said this, I do not believe that there are moral absolutes. I am a moral relativists. Only, there are a lot of different types of relativism. I reject the ‘for me’ form of relativism, but accept a type of ‘for us’ relativism.

    Saying that our ‘sense of right and wrong’ is explainable in natural terms is like saying of a person who is looking at a mirage that his ‘sense of water in the distance’ is produced by natural causes. It is true, in a sense, but still it is a mistake to infer from the fact that one sees something that one thinks is water that there is any real water out there.

    The only thing that we ‘sense’ with our ‘sense of right and wrong’ is a set of culturally implanted preference. Yet, like I wrote above, you cannot infer a moral conclusion from a preference.

    Steelman

    There is a difference between saying that a house is built out of bricks and that houses are bricks. Morality takes desires (which have a genetic origin) as their building material. However, morality and genetically modified desires are still two different entities (like houses and bricks).

  • Pingback: CelticBear’s Musings » Blog Archive » The development of morality.

  • ash

    ok, so the basic premise here seems to be ‘are morals genetically stimulated or based on societal concepts?’ (if i’m wrong, tell me, and ignore the rest of this, it’ll probably make no sense ;¬)). i’d argue that there is a possibility that our most base levels of moral instincts could be understood to have a genetic predisposition – i.e. the unwillingness to commit murder could be understood as such as it directly influences species survival – but 1) we do not have enough knowledge about genes and the way they work, singularly or in combination to state this as fact and 2) it is far more likely with the knowledge we currently possess that morals are based on a need for social cohesion. Example; a doctor wishes to preserve and prolong human life. whilst you could say that someone going into this profession has a genetic predisposition to want to help others, you’d have to also recognise all the social factors that make this an admirable position, which is different now than early concepts of a doctors role. also a doctor in the early 20th century would have had a moral obligation to prescribe his patients the miracle drug cocaine for pain control, a doctor these days would have a moral obligation not to. the point? other than very fundamental levels of morality, what constitues ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is subject to change through lots of factors – history, science, culture, politics, religion etc. – there are very few, if any, moral absolutes.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    since we (try to) start fom a point of minimal assumptions (i.e. directly observable facts), then build up from there.

    godma, this is where we part company on the question. Having done a bit of reading about Occam’s razor and the principle of parsimony lately, and especially the limited and very specialized applications of them I’m inclined to view their use very strictly. Unless the question can be defined and the knowledge about the subject is sufficiently broad then their application is unwise. It’s better to remain agnostic on the subject than to go out on a limb and start chopping branches. You never know when you’ll be left without support. The question of what methods and tools of formal logic or science that would apply to proposed supernatural entities is entirely unknown and almost certainly unknowable.

  • Darryl

    olvlzl, hypothesizing a base, innate, genetic morality is a scientific matter and can be researched scientifically. Science has no interest in a supernatural explanation for anything, including this. There is no reason to bring any god into this discussion–this is precisely the point: we don’t need the supernatural to originate morality. People, it may be asserted, are evolutionarily moral; and the rational codes they have developed were prompted by their genes not their gods.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Darryl, morality is a term that is undefined. Look at the variety of actions and beliefs that different people define as “moral”. Does your typical Quaker Universalist’s morality really have much in common with that of the most rigid fundamentalist cleric? That we might use one word to push such diverse phenomena into one category leads lazy people to just assume that there is something called “morality” and to take off for the stars from there. As in all problems dealing with the vague and undefined the more concrete the assertions made about the “phenomena” the greater the problem of definition becomes. To assert that there is a “genetic” basis for”morality” isn’t science, it’s mythology of exactly the kind Genesis is made of. Dawkins on Terry Gross’ program, gave a rather absurd guess on how “religion” came about as the result of adaptations giving a competitive advantage to good little hominids who believe what their parents told them, with absolutely no fossil or other physical evidence to back up his fairy tale. His school of biological speculation is always doing stuff like that, calling made up stories with no physical evidence, no evidence that the phenomena under consideration have any objective evidence, etc. science. It’s not science, it’s getting by on the fact that he works at Oxford and his school hasn’t met the fate of previous schools which were all the rage at one time. Stuff like that is always going on in the behavioral sciences. Meanwhile, there are real behavioral and cognitive scientists who don’t get attention because their claims and publications stick to the evidence. What they do is science but it’s not usually found on the NYT Bestsellers list.


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