Moral Dilemmas


Hauser's Trolley

Below is an excerpt from a book I was recently reading out of intellectual curiosity, a book by Richard Dawkins that argues in favor of Atheism with a notably heavy reliance on the theory of evolution. While this page is not intended to promote any of the main ideas shared in his book, I would still like to share this following excerpt as I found it to be fascinating. It delves into our sense of moral right and wrong, and considers several intriguing hypothetical moral dilemmas. One notion of the book I will openly agree with is that morality is not born of religion, but is somehow more deeply ingrained within us. Surely a man who is good for good's sake is more moral and righteous than a man who is good because of his religious teachings, or because of fear of retribution. However, regardless of your own beliefs, try reading through the dilemmas as they will surely engage your mind and peak your interest.

If our moral sense, like our sexual desire, is indeed rooted deep in our Darwinian past, predating religion, we should expect that research on the human mind would reveal some moral universals, crossing geographical and cultural barriers, and also, crucially, religious barriers. The Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, has enlarged upon a fruitful line of thought experiments originally suggested by moral philosophers. Hauser's study will serve the additional purpose of introducing the way moral philosophers think. A hypothetical moral dilemma is posed, and the difficulty we experience in answering it tells us something about our sense of right and wrong. Where Hauser goes beyond the philosophers is that he actually does statistical surveys and psychological experiments, using questionnaires on the Internet, for example, to investigate the moral sense of real people. From the present point of view, the interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons. This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights or, as Hauser himself prefers to say, like our capacity for language (the details vary from culture to culture, but the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal). As we shall see, the way people respond to these moral tests, and their inability to articulate their reasons, seems largely independent of their religious beliefs or lack of them. The message of Hauser's book, to anticipate it in his own words, is this: 'Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems. As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness.'

Typical of Hauser's moral dilemmas are variations on the theme of a runaway truck or 'trolly', on a railway line which threatens to kill a number of people. The simplest story images a person, Denise, standing by a set of points and in a position to divert the trolly onto a siding, thereby saving the lives of five people trapped on the main line ahead. Unfortunately there is a man trapped on the siding. But since he is only one, outnumbered by the five people trapped on the main track, most people agree that it is morally permissible, if not obligatory, for Denise to throw the switch and save the five by killing the one. We ignore hypothetical possibilities such as that the one man on the siding might be Beethoven, or a close friend.

Elaborations of the thought experiment present a series of increasingly teasing moral conundrums. What if the trolly can be stopped by dropping a large weight in its path from a bridge overhead? That's easy: obviously we must drop the weight. But what if the only large weight available is a very fat man sitting on the bridge, admiring the sunset? Almost everybody agrees that it is immoral to push the fat man off the bridge, even though, from one point of view, the dilemma might seem parallel to Denise's, where throwing the switch kills one to save five. Most of us have a strong intuition that there is a crucial difference between the two cases, though we may not be able to articulate what it is.

Pushing the fat man off the bridge is reminiscent of another dilemma considered by Hauser. Five patients in a hospital are dying, each with a different organ failing. Each would be saved if a donor could be found for their particular faulty organ, but none is available. Then the surgeon notices that there is a healthy man in the waiting room, all five of whose organs are in good working order and suitable for transplanting. In this case, almost nobody can be found who is prepared to say that the moral act is to kill the one to save the five.

As with the fat man on the bridge, the intuition that most of us share is that an innocent bystander should not suddenly be dragged into a bad situation and used for the sake of others without his consent. Immanual Kant famously articulated the principle that a rational being should never be used as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even the end of benefiting others. This seems to provide the crucial difference between the case of the fat man on the bridge (or the man in the hospital waiting room) and the man on Denise's siding. The fat man on the bridge is being positively used as the means to stop the runaway trolley. This clearly violates the Kantian principle. The person on the siding is not being used to save the lives of the five people on the line. It is the siding that is being used, and he just has the bad luck to be standing on it. But, when you put the distinction like that, why does it satisfy us? For Kant, it was a moral absolute. For Hauser, it is built into us by our evolution.

The hypothetical situations involving the runaway trolley become increasingly ingenious, and the moral dilemmas correspondingly tortuous. Hauser contrasts the dilemmas faced by hypothetical individuals called Ned and Oscar. Ned is standing by the railway track. Unlike Denise, who could divert the trolley onto a siding, Ned's switch diverts it onto a side loop which joins the main track again just before the five people. Simply switching the points doesn't help: the trolley will plough into the five anyway when the diversion rejoins the main track. However, as it happens, there is an extremely fat man on the diversionary track who is heavy enough to stop the trolley. Should Ned change the points and divert the train? Most people's intuition is that he should not. But what is the difference between Ned's dilemma, and Denise's? Presumably people are intuitively applying Kant's principle. Denise diverts the trolley from ploughing into the five people, and the unfortunate casualty on the siding is 'collateral damage', to use the charmingly Rumsfeldian phrase. He is not being used by Denise to save the others. Ned is actually using the fat man to stop the trolley, and most people (perhaps unthinkingly), along with Kant (thinking it out in great detail), see this as a crucial difference.

The difference is brought out again by the dilemma of Oscar. Oscar's situation is identical to Ned's, except that there is a large iron weight on the diversionary loop of track, heavy enough to stop the trolley. Clearly Oscar should have no problem deciding to pull the points and divert the trolley. Except that there happens to be a hiker walking in front of the iron weight. He will certainly be killed if Oscar pulls the switch, just as surely as Ned's fat man. The difference is that Oscar's hiker is not being used to stop the trolley: he is collateral damage, as in Denise's dilemma. Like Hauser, and like most of Hauser's experimental subjects, I feel that Oscar is permitted to throw the switch but Ned is not. But I also find it quite hard to justify my intuition. Hauser's point is that such moral intuitions are often not well throught out but that we feel them strongly anyway, because of our evolutionary heritage.

There are numerous variations on these presented delimmas which could be explored. Think, perhaps, of the War on Terror and on similar cases were capturing terrorists would result in innocent casualties. Think of two similar situations such as Ned's and Oscar's, that would lead you to opposing choices despite their similarity. Continuing to narrow the differences in the situations to help uncover the deep reasoning for your choices can be an interesting exercise.

The Dress Code

The BBC World Service radio show recently had as a guest Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilaly who, not surprisingly, spoke negatively about immodestly dressed women. This hot topic also briefly* made it's way into the BBC's online Have Your Say forum with the title Should women dress more modestly? with subquestion "Regardless of religion, race or nationality should women across the world think carefully about the clothes they wear?". I would think it's a near given that everyone should think carefully about the clothes they wear, but this naturally leads into a discussion of what they should have the right to wear, and I will address both of these issues here.

Let's jump right in and get dirty, and start with my personal thoughts. I believe a woman should have the right to wear anything she wants. I think most everyone in the Western world (a term I will use primarly in relation to the United States) would agree. But this isn't fully thought through, is it? Does that mean she can walk around completely naked? Our laws which would throw a naked woman in jail for indecent exposure seems to suggest no. We, too, have our limits. We just allow much more than the stereotypical Islamic culture (I say stereotypical as I am somewhat ignorant of their culture and can only speak of the stereotype). But in a world where we allow bikinis, how much of a stretch would it be to allow complete nudity? Why not? Perhaps they should have the right to be nude in public; all the other mammals of the Earth are.

But now lets move on to the reality, and why a culture might advocate stricter dress codes for women than they do for men. The problem is, men have an instinctual urge to copulate. Women may have this urge too, but it pales in comparison to the male urge. It's an instinctual means to an end, that of reproduction, required for the continuation of the species. Most males, in most of nature, are the natual agressor in this regard. But humans have an advanced conscience, and can (and usually do) overrule their instinctual desires at will. However, to touch on the topic of rape, scantily clad women still put themselves at greater risk to the weak minded. That's their choice. But even to the strong minded males, it still often serves as an unproductive distraction, driving an urge that is already stronger than women would generally like it to be. A man sourrounded by such women will likely be less productive in general, and is likely to demand more gratification from his mate, should he have one. Most women, however, would probably agree that their men's desires are strong enough already, if not too strong. Thus, it may very well be the right of all women to dress as provocatively as they choose, but it may not be in their own best interest, nor societies best interest should it lead to decreased productivity (and increased reproductivity in an already crowded world?).

It is not that hard to understand that a culture may choose fully clothed women as a desired standard, assuming that it's purpose is aimed at quelling men's overly agressive sexual desire. Is this the basis for this standard in the Muslim world? I don't have a deep enough understanding of their culture to say, but it would be worth investigating. Men's sexual desire can be related to a drug. The more men are teased, the more they want. And when a man does get his high, and releases the sexual tension, the desire suddenly fades for a short time. But that desire will come back, and much quicker with feminine flesh exposed around every corner. For men, it is much like an addiction to a drug (in as best as I can understand an addiction to a drug given that I have never been addicted to one). And with most drugs being illegal in this world, why is it any surprise that a culture might want to eliminate one more?

Now I'd like to address some comments that are somewhat common regarding this issue. These are actual comments from the Have Your Say comment thread on this issue.

To say that it is a woman's style of dress that promotes attacks is fundamentally excusing the men who attack them.

This comment is often made in regards to the notion that women who dress provocatively are "asking for it". While I wouldn't agree with the "asking for it" argument, this counterargument is equally untrue. While it's certainly never the intent, it does promote attacks in the sense that it drives the male urge. However, it certainly does not excuse the men who would attack them. This can be compared to a police sting operation where their female officers behave and dress in a way that promotes prospective johns to stop and ask them for "paid service". But clearly, as evidence by them being carted off to jail, it did in no way excuse them.

[Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilaly's] attitude is out-dated, ignorant and disrepectful to both men and women. To say men can't keep their hands off a woman if she isn't shrouded in clothing shows no respect for the modern man.

Here, I partially disagree. It is no more disrespectful to men and women than it is disrespectful, in his view, of our own position on the subject. It may only be disrespectful of men and women of the West, but in such case, our own viewpoint may be equally disrespectful of men and women of the East. It's a difference of culture, and if you don't think the opposing culture is fine the way it is, then disrespect for it is unavoidable. Similarly, just as to say men can't keep their hands off a woman if she isn't shrouded in clothing shows no respect for the modern man, you could say locking your car doors shows no respect for the modern human. Like it or not, some of us "modern" humans can't be trusted. Thus, the commentor's whole argument holds little weight.

Flesh is not an invitation for sex, and if it is, then you need help. Or an operation.

This comment I would agree with it. But it also misses the point. It may not be an invitation, but it is a stimulant, and that's the real issue.

The one comment that best reflects my own opinion, and it is the final opinion I will leave you with, is the following:

Should women be required to cover up? No, of course not. Is it in their best interests to do so? Perhaps. I know that when I see a woman in a bikini top and mini-skirt, I'm definitely not wondering whether she has good ideas for stimulating the economy. Similarly, if I see a shirtless guy, I put him in a different category than I do a guy in a three piece suit.

How you dress defines you, if you want to define yourself as a sex object, go ahead, but don't expect people to treat you seriously.

Lawrence, Morgantown, USA

* You have to love the BBC's gumption to make their statements so bluntly, with little regard to who it may offend, from a title such as "Should women dress more modestly?" to the sidebar which actually has a link titled "How do I complain?" (see the "About Have Your Say" box, under "The Rules"). Nevertheless, this one must have been too jaded, as the link to the thread was replaced by a related thread titled "Is cleric's apology enough?" with subquestion "When does freedom of speech become an infrigement of rights?".

Last Updated 10/27/2005 by Scott Arnold Valid HTML 4.0 Transitional