Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Push Or Not To Push?

Along the lines of my last post...
I recently listened to an old episode of WNYC's Radiolab about morality. They were discussing a scientific study in which people were asked how they would respond in certain situations that required a moral decision. The first situation was like this: You're standing at a rail yard and you see five guys working on a track, and then on that same track you see a train headed toward them, you're too far away and/or it's too noisy for you to warn them, but you do have a switch that would divert the train onto the neighboring track and on the neighboring track there is only one single worker. Do you switch the train onto the other track, thus killing one man who otherwise would have lived, but saving the five men who otherwise would have died?
In the study, nine out of ten people said yes, they would throw the switch.
The second situation is like this: Same rail yard, same five workers on the track with the train coming. But this time you're on an overpass directly over the tracks and you don't have a switch, but there's a great big fat guy next to you, and you realize that if you just push him off the overpass onto the tracks, he'll die, but his body will stop the train and save the five workers. Do you push the fat man?
In the study, nine out of ten people said no, they would not push the fat guy.

I guess it might be evidence of my intolerance to hypocrisy, but I answered yes to both situations, before I knew the results of the study.
There are a lot of issues that this study raises: What is the material difference between the two situations? In both cases you are killing one person in order to save five people, the only difference is in the method. I think that the real difference is that in the first scenario, you are one step removed from the immediacy of the action; you're just flipping a switch, it takes intellectual reasoning to link that action to the altered course of the train and then another step to the death of the man hit by the train. On the other hand, the murder of the fat man is viscerally immediate to your action of pushing him from a great height, this takes no intellectual reasoning to realize, you pushed, he died.
I would argue that there is no moral difference between the results of acting in each situation, the difference is all in how shielded you are from the consequences of your action.

10 comments:

  1. Here is my comment regarding this issue. You are always responsible for your actions and inactions YOU TAKE but NOT for the situations you face. Such responsibility must be guided by your conscience, which is your internal code (built up in time by reason and experience) that guides how to act. That is, you act incorrectly if your actions go against what you believe is correct. But conscience must be educated and this example you gave is a good example when this education takes place. Here, same people provide completely contradicting answers but you say yes to both. Now, what if there is third option where the person that should die is you? why would you not say yes in this one? And if you decided to say yes in the first two, as you admitted you did, was it because you counted lives? Then, if that's what guides you, why would not say yes to this one?

    What must guide your decisions? how would you educate your conscience regarding this issue? Although this is part of another post, some answers to these questions are hinted somehow at the end of this post where I provide my answers to the particular situations you bring.

    In summary, all I want to say here is that you are NOT responsible for the situations you face. You are only responsible for the actions you take, even if your actions mean no action, as long as the decision is well decided by you conscience, wherein you have fully understood the decisions you have taken.

    Now, personally, I would have said no in the first two situations as I'm guided by life. I would have tried any other options to save both the 5 and the one. If I can't make myself responsible for the killing of one when I'm not responsible for the death of five. In the third situation the answer yes is only optional (and of course praiseworthy) while the answer no brings up to you no responsibility.

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  2. Sorry, a sentence in the last paragraph of my post should read "I can't make myself responsible for the killing of one when I'm not responsible for the death of five" The "If" should be dropped.

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  3. i think i would have answered yes to the first and no the second. but it is flawed because i read your post and read armin's answer and i had time to think about it.
    but i'm very thrown about this because, i think that human life can't be counted: one life is no more or less than 5 lives.

    just to fight armin (between us, he's always wrong) i believe it is not always your choice, in some states it is illegal not to help someone in trouble.

    bottom line, i would talk to the fat guy telling him he is killing himself and increasing our health insurance premiums, then i would push him (clearly this last point is joke)

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  4. A couple different points:
    1) I disagree with what Armin said:
    "you act incorrectly if your actions go against what you believe is correct"
    this is actually what I'm getting at in the "Objective Morality" post. Armin, you seem to be arguing that morals are actually subjective, that there can be a "right" for me and a different "right" for you, etc.
    I believe that in every ethical situation there is an absolutely right way to act and a continuum of progressively less right ways to act. I tend to think that "rule-utillitarian" ethics offer the best definition of what that right action entails, namely, if used as a guideline of how others ought to act in similar situations, it would cause the most well-being and/or the least suffering.
    Granted you cannot always (really ever) know for sure all of the consequences of your actions, so a moral person must choose the action that is most likely to fulfill these requirements. That being said, it is then possible for someone to choose the best action given the knowledge he possesses and his best intentions, but for that action to still turn out to be the wrong one, because of something unforeseen or due to some lack of knowledge on the agents part. However, the fact that he chose "best" given his knowledge and intentions, doesn't change the fact that he chose wrong, given the reality of the situation.
    An example:
    Your standing on a street when you see, running toward you a scuzzy looking guy with a purse in his hand, and a policeman running after him yelling for him to stop. So you think this is a purse snatcher trying to get away and you stick your foot out and trip him, the cop catches up to him and shoots him dead. It turns out the "cop" was a mental patient in costume and that the other man was holding his wife's purse while she went to the bathroom when the mental patient accused him of stealing his brain and keeping it in the purse. Of course this is an absurd example but it illustrates the point. Even though you acted "best" given the knowledge you had, and your intentions were good (to bring a thief to justice and return a victim's stolen property), you still acted wrong, given what the reality of the situation turned out to be.
    2. Armin, I think you're guilty of trying to fudge the rules of the hypothetical situation. Of course when faced with the choice: either a) one person dies. or b) five people die. we'd all like to choose c) nobody dies. But that defeats the purpose of the hypothetical, you have to choose a or b.
    Also, the hypothetical world is divorced from reality in that we know certain things to be true with a certainty we can't have in real life. In reality, it would be pretty stupid to think that a fat body on the tracks is gonna stop a train, but we take it for granted in the hypothetical because it helps us to get to the underlying issue. The situation doesn't really translate to real life, but it helps us examine our attitudes, and hopefully, that will have an affect on our actions.

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  5. Nik, It seems that you did not understand me. I agree with you that truth is one. What I said is that your moral responsibility is to act according to what you believe or what your conscience dictates you, that is not to say that you are morally correct or that you are even freed from your legal responsibilities. Ignorance does not condone the offender but mitigates its faults. Thus, you can indeed be acting immorally and hence you or conscience must be taught through reasoning accordingly. I do not want to extend further on this to avoid long debates...

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  6. Serge, you said "in some states it is illegal not to help someone in trouble". Agreed but I do not think that is the dichotomy presented in Nik's example. But to tell you the truth, some laws lack reasoning and hence I do not think they are to be considered in your moral decisions though they can be so imposing that they can mitigate your moral responsibilities. In other words, I need a good reason not a bad law to change my opinion but i may act against my wishes when the penalty of not doing so are too painful to take.

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  7. Nik. reading the rest of your statements I say that you agree with me, or I agree with you, or both agree, whatever way you like it best :). Regarding my answer I think I was clear in choosing the option where all five die in both cases. I'm not responsible for the situation where 5 must die and I act responsibly in not choosing to kill one. However, I still want to know why you chose to intervene and kill one in both situations. What was your line of reasoning?

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  8. First let me offer the caveat that this is a hypothetical situation and I can't really know how I would truly respond until I was actually in the situation. In real life I tend to agree with Serge that human life cannot be reduced to numbers. But in the way this problem is posed, numbers are really all we have: do nothing and five people die, act and one person dies. Whether you choose to throw the switch or not, you have made a decision, and I believe you are morally culpable for the consequences of that decision. Since every variable has been removed from consideration except the number of people, I make my decision based on that consideration. It is better that one person dies than that five people die. If we were given other factors to consider maybe I would change my decision, although, paradoxically, the expansion of considerations into personality aspects of the people affected makes me morally queezy, (the same way that the reduction of life or death issues to arithmatic does) it seems too much like playing God.
    So that's my reasoning. Basically, I think the situation boils down to choosing between the deaths of five people or one person. I don't buy the rationalization that I am not responsible for the deaths of the five people if I do nothing, because I had the ability to (easily) save them.
    Serge brought up the idea of so-called "Good Samaritan" laws under which people are criminally responsible for failing to help someone in danger. I am against these laws. I don't believe someone should be criminally responsible for failing to help, but I do believe that people are morally responsible for helping those in distress, especially when one can render aid safely and easily, without hazard to oneself.
    But in this situation, I believe one's responsibility is clear. And I believe that there is no material difference between situation one and situation two, it merely comes down to how removed you are from the consequences of your actions.

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  9. Armin said...
    Serge, you said "in some states it is illegal not to help someone in trouble". Agreed but I do not think that is the dichotomy presented in Nik's example. But to tell you the truth, some laws lack reasoning and hence I do not think they are to be considered in your moral decisions though they can be so imposing that they can mitigate your moral responsibilities. In other words, I need a good reason not a bad law to change my opinion but i may act against my wishes when the penalty of not doing so are too painful to take.

    Amen brother, well-said. I absolutely agree. The laws of nations are often completely divorced from ethics. Sure there ar laws based on moral concepts but there are also many laws with motivations having nothing to do with ethics; hence the term "victimless crimes.

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  10. Nik you said.
    "I don't buy the rationalization that I am not responsible for the deaths of the five people if I do nothing, because I had the ability to (easily) save them." Again, that is the situation we face, how are responsible for it? However, this is not to say that we can erase it from our conscience or make it disappear from or our senses to lose any evidence of it from memory. That is, we are not free from a decision we must now take, including not doing anything. There is where our responsibility starts. And yet, when deciding actively (intervening) over passively (not doing anything), if killing is the only solution, then letting 5 die does not make you responsible. Life, in all moral decisions must always be at the top of all other values and considerations, and as such, as Serge says, it cannot be counted nor it be evaluated numerically, sentimentally, or even economically. You are given a situation where you have to kill a life to save others lives in the lack of any other options.

    What if we know the people around that person, i.e.,his mom, for many years while we know nothing about the life of the other 5. Further, what if that person we are killing is your mom or yourself or even, what would the argument be if you mom is within the five? You do not know this by the them you decide. You MUST agree then that our personal experience or knowledge SHOULD NOT be considered in this particular decision where life is involved. Here we are striving for something more universal.

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