Re: [asa] The Neurology of Morality and the Politics of Science

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Mon Mar 26 2007 - 20:19:36 EDT

Interesting. I think the hypothetical expressly assumes that throwing the
person in front of the train will stop it -- maybe the engineer hits the
emergency brake or something. I've not seen any primary social science
research that actually explains how the thought experiment is constructed.

Personally, I feel more squeamish about throwing a person in front of the
train than about throwing the switch, even though the body count is the
same. But I think this has more to do with what I would anticipate observing
rather than with the comparative morality of the two actions. All else
being equal, I'd rather not see the gore. Moreover, there's a utilitarian
aspect to that feeling as well, because I'm pretty sure that kind of scene
would haunt me forever. The utility is the same either way for the other
people involved, but on balance my utility is better served by not having to
see the results first-hand.

And of course, none of the scenarios offer what might be the most moral
option -- pushing everyone else out of the way and jumping in front of the
train yourself. (Someone recently actually did this, and survived by
ducking under the train).

All of which is another reason that the kind of speculation discussed in the
article seems unwarranted.

On 3/26/07, D. F. Siemens, Jr. <> wrote:
> I've got a problem with the "paradox" assumptions. The claim is that
> pushing the one person in front of the train will stop it and prevent the
> five from being injured. It seems to me that a normal evaluation of such a
> situation makes the train being stopped highly questionable. The difference
> between a stationary 70 kg person and a speeding megagram (gigagram ?) train
> makes stopping doubtful. In contrast, switching to a different track is
> effective--the train will either miss the 5 by being on the other track or
> miss 6 because it jumps the track. Is the difference in evaluation moral, or
> because the normal people don't fully believe the story?
> Dave
> On Mon, 26 Mar 2007 14:18:13 -0400 "David Opderbeck" <>
> writes:
> There is an interesting article in this month's Economist that
> illustrates, I think, some of the problems with social Darwinism,
> particularly when it is linked to a particular political outlook, as it
> seemingly inevitably is (article here:
> The article reports on a study of six people who have suffered damage to a
> part of the brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC)) that is
> involved with social emotion. The study showed that these people were more
> likely than a control group to provide a "utilitarian" answer to the
> "runaway train paradox."
> The "runaway train paradox" involves two dilemmas -- in one, you must
> decide whether to push a person in front of an oncoming train in order to
> slow the train before it hits five other people further down the line; in
> the other, you must decide whether to switch the track so that that train
> will hit only one person further down the line rather than hitting five
> people. Most people will hesistate to push a person in front of the train
> to save five lives, but will not hesistate to switch the track so that the
> train hits one person further down the line instead of five. The six
> subjects with damaged VMPC's felt the same about both possibilities -- they
> would not hesitate in either case to sacrifice one person in order to save
> five.
> The article explains that *"In these cases it seems that the decision on
> how to act is not a single, rational calculation of the sort that moral
> philosophers have generally assumed is going on, but a conflict between two
> processes, with one (the emotional) sometimes able to override the other
> (the utilitarian, the location of which this study does not address)." *This
> yin-and-yang of emotional and rational responses, the article says, *"fits
> with one of the tenets of evolutionary psychology.... This is that minds are
> composed of modules evolved for given purposes.... The VMPC may be the site
> of a 'moral-decision' module, linked to the social emotions, that either
> regulates or is regulated by an as-yet-unlocated utilitarian module. **"
> *
> **
> So far, perhaps, so good. All of this seems very speculative, and a
> sample size of six people with brain damage hardly seems adequate, but
> nevertheless, it wouldn't be surprising that the emotional and rational
> aspects of moral reasoning relate to different parts of the brain, and it
> doesn't problematic per se if those parts of the brain developed over time
> through evolutionary processes. The kicker is in the article's concluding
> paragraph:
> *This does not answer the question of what this module (what philosophers
> woudl call 'moral sense') is actually for. But it does suggest the question
> should be addressed functionally, rather than in the abstract. Time,
> perhaps, for philosophers to put away their copies of Kant and pull a dusty
> tome of Darwin off the bookshelf. *
> **
> It seems to me that in this paragraph the article crosses from descriptive
> to prescriptive; from science to metaphysics. This is particularly so in
> that, as a devoted reader of the Economist, I'm well aware of that
> magazine's pragmatist / libertarian political philosophy and its slant
> towards materialist metaphysics. In a very subtle way, this is an example
> of the materialist / pragmatist saying: *"See there ... all that 'moral
> sense' and whot is in your head. We shall move beyond this and learn to
> develop our utilitarian modules."*

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Received on Mon Mar 26 20:20:35 2007

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