Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ethics: damned utilitarian if you do; damned by utilitarians if you don't

For sometime it has been known that the brain is divided up into specialized modules. For example, vision is processed in the back of the brain, while abstract reasoning and planning is processed primarily in the front of the brain. And more basic emotions, such as fear and anger, are controlled by the limbic system, which roughly occupies the center of the brain. However, even further advances in brain function have revealed some vexing issues for ethics.

Consider the an old standby, double-sided thought experiment that challenges those who think ethics is merely a version of risk assessment or a type of pain/pleasure accounting.

First, imagine that you're standing next to a fork in the train-tracks, and before you is a lever that changes the direction the train will take. Sadly, the train can not be stopped, and if left to progress along its path, it will run over and kill 5 people standing at the end of the tracks. But if you pull the lever the train will change directions, killing but a single person standing at the other side of that fork. What do you do?

Second, take the train situation again, but this time you're standing on a bridge which crosses over the tracks. Also, there's only one direction the train can go; still, at the end there are 5 people that will be killed. You know that the only way to stop the train is by throwing some sort of heavy object in it's path. Alas, the only heavy object at your disposal at the moment happens to be a very portly man standing next to you on the bridge. What do you do?

If you survey people, a bit under 90% will pull the lever to save the five people, and kill the one person in the first scenario. But over 90% of the people will refuse to push the portly man over the bridge to save the second group of five. The odd problem is that a merely bean counting view of ethics, attending to just the risks or the consequences, should result in the scenarios being assessed the same: one dies, and five live! But, in fact, this is not how people actually behave. Therefore, ethical assessment is not analogous, say, to financial assessment.

Brain scientists have an explanation for why this is so, and thus why ethics must be something other than bottom-line type thinking. Some of our reasoned ethical decisions are processed in one area (at least) in the brain, but some are also processed in a more specific part -- the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which has to do with guilt, shame, and compassion. Both general reasoning and the unique emotions particular to humans are essential marks of our species, but neither can be easily argued to trump the other for decision making. This is why the train experiments cause us such consternation. Ethics is a troublesome business, but when recent developments in brain science are thrown in, we recognize just how much subtlety there really is to moral choice.


[image] by Gary Larson, from David O. Brink "Philosophy 13: Ethics, Fall Quarter, 2003" (Accessed July 14,2008)

Labels: , ,


At 6:10 PM, Anonymous Eoin said...

Both actions would be morally equivalent under an act utilitarian moral theory, but perhaps not under a deontological one. Hurling a portly man in front of a train to save others would most likely violate Kant's dictum of treating people as ends, not as means.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger brinticus said...

Yes, for Kant, that might be a legit application of his dictum. I think, however, it shows the limitations of Kant's non-ends-means dictum, for this doesn't account for our intuition that it's better to prevent many dying than just one dying..


Post a Comment

<< Home