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Would You Press the Button?

You are riding on a trolley which is moving quickly down a track and you have no brakes. In front of you the track splits to the left and right. On the left track, which is the direction you will take at the split, are five people who cannot get off the track. If you hit them they will die. On the right track is one person in a similar situation. By pressing a button you can switch your path from the left to the right and kill the one person instead of 5. Should you press the button?

Later that day you are riding your trolley again and find the brakes still don’t work. On the track in front of you (there is no split this time) are 5 people. If you hit them they will die. Luckily riding on the trolley with you is a fat friend. If you push him off the front of the trolley he will die but will stop the trolley and avoid the five on the track being hit. Should you push him?

After surviving the two incidents on the trolley you go to work. You are a surgeon and have 5 patients dying from various diseases. The only way to save them is with transplants. In the next room is a healthy person from whom you can harvest the 5 organs needed to save the other five. But you need to kill him to do this. Should you?

Driving home from work that night you come across a person injured in a motorbike accident. He is bleeding and needs to be taken to the hospital or he will die from blood loss. You have just bought a brand new Mercedes (you’re a rich surgeon, remember) and you know it will cost $500 to have the blood stains removed but you can’t see any other traffic on the road. Do you take him to the hospital?

Finally arriving home you relax to unwind after a hard day coping with making unusual moral decisions. But the phone rings. It is a charity wanting $500 to save the life of a child dying from starvation in Central Africa. Do you give them the money?

These are all examples of questions used by researchers trying to study the nature of human morality. The responses people give are quite consistent. Generally people will change the direction of the trolley to save 5 but kill 1. Most won’t push the fat person off the front to save 5 but kill 1. And few will think it’s OK to kill one person to save 5 with transplants. And almost everyone is prepared to spend $500 to repair the car after transporting the injured motorcyclist but most won’t donate $500 to save a starving African child.

Let’s look at these responses and see if they make sense.

In the first three cases the person has to make a conscious decision to kill one person to save 5. When the details are stripped away there is no significant difference between the three cases, but the vast majority of people will press the button but won’t push the fat person or harvest the organs of the patient. Why not?

In every case they must perform a deliberate action knowing fully that one person will die as a result but that 5 will be saved. What is the real difference in these cases? The main one seems to be the directness of the action and existing social norms. Pressing a button is a less direct way of killing someone than pushing a person off a trolley is. And harvesting organs of a living person is against all medical ethical rules despite the fact that there is no real difference between that and pushing the button.

In the second two cases a similar argument applies. In both of these situation spending $500 is required to save a person’s life, but only when the person is lying on the road, bleeding right in front of them will most people act. When the person to be saved lives thousands of miles away the general level of interest is much less.

Interestingly some research has indicated that rich people are often less generous in both cases: some wouldn’t even stop their cars, and many certainly wouldn’t even consider the donation. And groups who claim a greater level of morality are no more likely to actually make the donation than anyone else, although most would at least stop the car.

So what does this all mean?

I think this supports a social evolutionary explanation of the origin of moral behaviour. We would expect that people would gain most from helping their friends and family because their friends are most likely to help them in return, and their family share their genes.

If there was a more absolute, objective source of morality then surely there would be a more universal trend to apply it. After all, if helping other people is considered a moral act should it depend on how close that person is located to you? And if there is an absolute rule that you should not kill does that still apply if you kill one person by a deliberate action but by doing that fail to kill 5 through inaction?

If morality is dictated by a traditional source such as the Bible we would expect to see a major difference in the responses of believers and non-believers. But we don’t. Either morality is specified in these sources but ignored, or it is specified in a way very similar to what most people believe anyway, or non-believers (perhaps subconsciously) follow those rules without acknowledging it.

Of course my answer regarding religious morality would be that religious texts often reiterate the rules which we all know anyway, plus add a few more specific to the religion which are largely irrelevant to most people and in many cases run counter to normal moral beliefs (whatever that means) anyway.

For example, in the Ten Commandments there are various rules which are clearly religiously motivated and completely irrelevant to having a moral life. And the remainder are the sort of thing that any reasonable person would believe anyway. But even then they cannot be absolute. One of those commandments is “thou shalt not kill” yet many Christians will kill, either by joining the armed forces, or in the theoretical case of being on that out of control trolley!

Morality is nothing special. It is just a set of expedient guidelines which we have accumulated over the millennia living as a social species. And note that I said guidelines, not rules or laws. My recent theme continues: nothing should be absolute, and there is no good or bad. I think that makes the world a far more interesting place!

Note. I have discussed the trolley experiments before, and gave some of the statistics regarding the actual measured results in an entry titled “More Morality” back on 2007-11-27.

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