Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Morality Quiz (Not Mine, Apparently)

In an upcoming issue of Time magazine there is a story called "What Makes Us Moral?" Accompanying the article is The Morality Quiz. It's five simple questions about five situations in which you would have to choose whether or not to take a human life. Go ahead and take the quiz. After each question, you can see how your answer compared to the other people who took it. I intend to discuss each of the five questions below, and I will discuss how I answered them and reasoned them out. One hint: I was in the majority only once as of the time I took the test. I'll be here when you're done.

Insert Jeopardy "Think" music here.

The questions in the quiz are used by social scientists to determine where humans draw the line on morality. My "Golden Rule", my moral philosophy of treating other people the way I would want them to treat me, governed how I answered those questions. I would not want to be the one sacrificed on someone else's say-so, at least not without the chance to offer myself up voluntarily.

I'm not an orphaned baby whose cries could fatally expose a group of adults (BTW, did this scenario remind anyone of the last episode of "M*A*S*H"?), but I might be a severely injured adult in a great deal of unsoothable pain whose similar cries might jeopardize the lives of others. I wouldn't want someone else to make the decision that I should die or be expelled from the group to save the rest. But, believe it or not, I would be willing to voluntarily sacrifice myself to save others. I was in the 41% who would not smother the baby in the quiz. I'm a little concerned that three out of five people would do it.

Similarly, I could not order a person certain to die to be thrown overboard from an overcrowded lifeboat, but if I were the one injured and I was lucid enough to understand the situation, I would sacrifice myself to save the rest. I was a little surprised to learn that I was in that one out of every three that would not toss overboard a grievously ill person, and again I was concerned to see that two out of three people could do it. Perhaps the respondents weren't putting themselves in the place of the baby and badly-injured they would so readily sacrifice. In the case of the lifeboat sacrifice, I'm a little further disturbed that the percentage was higher than in the first question, even though this one clearly spelled out that the person being killed was fully aware of what was happening. Did people answer this way because they thought that this was the kind of resolution a leader should come to? Is it that they feel that a leader must be able to decide who lives and who dies in order to lead? Does a leader have that moral right in the first place? I do not believe that the test fully addresses that aspect of the moral question being studied.

Finally, the last three questions are based on the same basic scenario: There is a trolley about to kill five people and a way is offered for you to turn that five fatalities into only one. But it's not an easy choice like a random one of those five will die, but you can't know which. That would be simple. Yes, do what it takes to save up to four of those lives, and let the Fates determine who the unlucky one is. But in this case, the random death is not a random one of the five, but a completely different person. Each one has a different way in which that would happen, and you have to decide whether or not you would take the option given. Here's where the responses reveal something interesting. In the first one, you can throw a switch that will divert a trolley from killing five people in a group to killing one person by himself. The deaths are assumed to be imminent based on which track the trolley takes (which is determined by whether or not you throw a switch.) I couldn't do it. I couldn't knowingly throw that switch and kill that unsuspecting man on the side. I was almost shattered to learn that I was one of only 18% who couldn't throw the switch. An astounding 82% said they would do it. Remember that in my mind, I'm not simply saving five lives, I'm taking one. Even though the two are simultaneous and derivative of the same exact action on my part, I couldn't bring myself to kill another human at random. (Now I suspect that by now you're thinking I'm the romantic hero, but I do feel this way. Ask Jane. I have told her that even if we were in a group of people trying to survive a situation, and it was necessary for one person to sacrifice himself to guarantee the safety of the others, then I would do it.) If it were me stuck on the tracks and I could reach the switch and divert the trolley from their track to my own, thus killing myself but saving them, I would do it. That was not an option in this quiz though.

The fourth question changes the parameters of the first trolley car. In this one I was finally in the majority, but I suspect that it was because a lot of people taking these life and death morality questions are, at heart, cowards who don't believe in why they would do things they claim they would do. In this question, instead of throwing a switch to divert the trolley upon another innocent bystander, you have to actually throw an innocent bystander onto the track to save the five people. I was part of the five out of nine who said they could not push the bystander onto the track. Of course, in my mind, if I could push someone else off the bridge and onto the track below to save five people, I could also throw myself over. So why would four out of nine people say they could personally, with their bare hands, kill an innocent person to save five others? I'm not so sure they had alternatives in mind. Nor do they put themselves in the shoes of the guy they decided to sacrifice to save five other people. Kind of scary, when you think about it.

Even scarier are the results of the fifth and final question. Like the previous question, you have to cause another person to get thrown onto the path of the trolley, but instead of pushing them with your hands, you throw a switch that catapults them. (Again, of course, I said no.) Surprisingly enough, one of those nine people switched their position and decided that not having to actually touch the person they are condemning made it okay to go ahead and kill them. Now only four out of nine would not throw the switch, while five out of nine people said they would catapult someone to their death to save five other people. I have to wonder if they ever thought of themselves as being the one chosen to be sacrificed.

As the introduction to the quiz (and the aritcle itself) said, "The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you." I don't think I find it comforting to know that a majority of my fellow humans would sacrifice me against my will to save the lives of others. Yes, I believe it a noble thing to do it voluntarily (perhaps it's why I say I would do it, but I really would), but I also find it inhuman and inhumane to decide to sacrifice someone else, especially a particular someone else, for the good of the group. Drawing straws to see who must done for the others at least brings the element of fairness to the situation. The losing straw could be anyone's. I think we can accept the random death of one person if it ends up saving the group. But the deliberate murder of a single person, whether or not it could be rationalized as anything other than what it is, is more disturbing. Has our morality grown very high from its "deepest foundation" if so many people can forget what it might be like to be the one picked against his will to die so that others may live? I fear we have a long, long way to go before our species is ready for the next step in the evolutionary journey. We might reach it way before then, but we won't be ready for it. And that could be the momst frightening thing of all.


Europeanview said...

Hi Wayne, thanks for that. It shows two things to me, and I was in the minortiy like you. People get a scenario and don't think twice about it, just accept it. So why smother a child and not, which is my impulse, try and fight it out with whatever enemy is outside. But for that you'd have to take a personal risk. Why throw an injured person over board, when you can take turns at swimming alongside the boat, and as the injured is dying soon anyway, let him die in peace and then throw the corpse over board. But that means taking personal risk. Or, like you said, why not jump into the track yourself, instead of throwing a bystander, but that would take the willingness to suffer for others. The second thing is. If you have a switch to operate, killing is much easier.

I am not taking part in any killing, ever. Not with my vote in elections and not actively, except for protecting my children, I'd kill any aggressor for that if the situation required it and running was not an option.

Wayne A. Schneider said...

Thanks, ev,

One of the things I was going to post from when I first start was my opinion on when it's acceptable to use deadly force in a situation. I never finished it but kept it in draft form since about a year ago. I've been thinking about polishing it up and posting it, just so my position on that is clear (and easily referenced). Thanks for visiting.

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