Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?

Hypothetical moral dilemmas are not a popular topic in some circles. I recall Darwin Catholic, in particular, decrying hypotheticals of the Trolley Problem sort as worse than useless, as somehow pernicious. In this I think he's quite perceptive, because I think that moral dilemmas and the way human beings react to them tend to undermine theories of the conscience as moral perception.

For example, the classic way to discomfit a deontologist is to ask her* to imagine she is hiding a family of Jews from the Nazis, and that an SS guard asks her point-blank whether she is hiding anyone.

Of course, her predecessors have devised scores of ways to handle these scenarios. She might bite the bullet and say she's bound to tell the truth even then; she might say that the duty of truthfulness carries the implicit condition that the hearer is 'entitled' to the truth; she might justify mental reservation or other equivocations. But if she is anything like me, she'll admit that each of these options still leaves her with a sense of moral conflict; she still feels she ought to do all in her power to save that family, and this really seems to include lying as convincingly as possible, without hesitation or scruple.

I'm not aiming (here, at least) to belittle deontology, only to note that sense of moral conflict that persists even when she's confident she has the "right answer". There are hypotheticals that similarly perturb utilitarians, or virtue ethicists, or the adherents of any particular system of morals; and only by dint of self-delusion can we pretend to be perfectly reconciled to all of these tragic scenarios.

What does that signify? To me, this effect is poorly explained by the notion of our conscience as a form of moral perception, and better explained by the hypothesis that our conscience is simply a collection of evolved drives of a sort we call "moral", extended and harmonized by culture, habit, and our own thoughts.

We have a drive to be truthful (more to the point, there is a drive observed in primates as well to punish the trickster or cheater, and we have internalized it), and we have a drive to save the lives of that family (of course, the development of more universal forms of altruism deserves a discussion in its own right), and in the hypothetical above, these drives conflict with one another. That's why our deontologist can't be at ease with any solution, no matter how cleverly she seeks "the right answer". Of course, it doesn't bother a consequentialist in any significant sense, because he* hasn't habituated himself to consider lying per se as the reprehensible sort of trickery or cheating unless it hurts someone. As I said, we can train and modify these instincts over time.

The only problem is that we'd really like to treat this conscience of ours as if it more resembles our physical senses than it does our other emotions. It seems that to do otherwise would be to rob it of its prescriptive authority, to reduce the conscience to a matter of feeling and taste. But it can be no other way; if the conscience is a perception of an external right and wrong, how can it reproach us even as we follow it?

"Well, well," you say, "granted all this, you haven't done a thing to dissuade me that there are objective moral values; it's perhaps more difficult to discern them than I'd otherwise assume, but clear reasoning about life should do the trick!"

To that I say, "Bravo! I have much more to say, of course, on our human reason and indeed on the whole of moral reasoning; but you're quite right about the limited scope of this inquiry. I seek to debunk, not morality, but the conscience as its sure guide, and to lightly suggest that we can better form that conscience in accord with what we think is true."

But of course, you did not even grant me that much, because I haven't made a very good case at all, and because very few of you would be inclined to agree with me in the absence of a stellar argument. I eagerly await your disagreements, so that I can figure things out a bit better in the comments...

*A note on my perceived failures in gender-neutral language: I've decided, instead, to use a quantum superposition of "he" and "she" for an indeterminate hypothetical person. By reading this blog, you are collapsing the wavefunction.


Darwin said...

I should perhaps clarify, my issue with hypotheticals such as the trolley problem is that it seems to me that they are formulated in order to force decisions between a limited set of alternatives which are derived from a flawed understanding of what the moral sense or decision making faculty is.

So for instance, the trolley problem specifically limits one's actions down to flipping a railroad switch which will save five at the expense of one -- or not flipping it in the knowledge that the five are dying in order to save the one.

One is excluded from shouting, throwing things, running towards the workers, etc. Further, one is assumed to be the sole actor in the scenario -- one must make a "life or death" decision on which group of workers to hit, and is forced to assume that one may not either someone motivate them to get off the tracks, nor expect that they will somehow notice their danger and do something about it themselves.

Now, I understand that the point of this is to try to force the person to whom the question is posed to pick between only two alternatives in order to underscore their decision making process, but given that in no real situation are there only two possible actions, complete calm knowledge of the situation, and a lack of any other actors at play -- it seems to me that what it instead is really trying to do is force a decision between two alternatives which could in fact never be the only ones, in order to make a moral point of the poser's own choosing.

If I may make an absurd example: Suppose I were to pose to you the dillema, "Starting at 3pm today, every time you take a breath a child will be killed in Africa. What is the correct action for you to perform?"

Well, one could sit around puzzling as to whether saving all those lives justifies suicide, or one could better respond that it's an idiotic question and that's simply not going to happen. Given the existence of objective right and wrong, I still only hold that to mean that there is ought to be a right (or more right) action to take in any given situation in the real world in which that morality exists, not that there must be one in any fabricated world dreamed up for the purposes of proving the contrary.

Now I think about it, what I think this underscores is a view that the world contains an objective moral framework, as opposed to the a view that the conscience itself can somehow discern a "right" choice in any given situation, however fanciful. So I think it's specifically because I posit an objective morality that I find the artificial reality of the trolley problem pernicious.

Nemo said...

Two things to you, Patrick. The first being that "he", is in fact in English, as in many other European languages, the gender-neutral pronoun. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

The second being this question: Whoever said the conscience was supposed to be our primary guide to morality (aside from that "Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide" song)? If anyone believed that to be true, there wouldn't be so many books written on it. People don't usually expect other people to know what the right thing to do is. This is why we have scriptures and synagogues, to educate people on moral precepts (among other functions).

Them's my thoughts on the matter. I'm sure I'll have more nitpicking to do when you get on to moral reasoning.

Erik Keilholtz said...

Good Lord, Patrick, you look the SS in the eye and lie to him. End of problem. Anyone who wrings his hands over that ought to have his balls cut off, if they are there to begin with. You don't even need to do a post-mortem analysis on this one (and I am generally all in favor of post-mortem analyses).

Erik Keilholtz said...

I am sorry. I am getting soft in my old age. I should have added:

"The SS man is a Nazi. Fuck him."

That should take care of any squeamishness about always telling the truth. And always using polite language when confronted with moral absurdity.

Erik Keilholtz said...

And the same goes to "gender neutral language", which ought to be reserved for speaking to those of neutral genders. I tend to avoid those sorts.

Patrick said...


I agree that the process of learning about human moral impulses and moral reasoning via posing artificial moral dilemmas is pretty unsatisfactory. However, situations that reveal moral preferences in such stark terms do come up in reality: doctors performing triage, generals deciding strategy, etc. It's just hard to recreate these in the laboratory with stakes that get our peculiarly moral gears going.

Still, as artificial as these dilemmas are, we should note that they still do produce genuine moral anguish in a lot of people, and that the patterns of decisions that result look a lot like what you'd expect from the clash of disparate (and irreconcilable) moral impulses.

Patrick said...


You're an unusual case; in fact, I'd say your temperament is a rare one, wherein vehemence is not necessarily a sign of moral outrage. (In your case, vehemence seems to mostly result from an aesthetic of pissing off sensitive moderns; in mine, it's part of an overdeveloped intellectual conscience, the drive to be certain.)