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Morality - Comments

Randy Ping's Avatar Comment 1 by Randy Ping

Wow, that was totaly fascinating and enlightening.
Thank you. This is the kind of stuff that I hope to see on a site like this. I'd much rather learn something than read some religionists rant on and on about how he hated The God Delusion.

Thu, 16 Nov 2006 21:11:00 UTC | #7987

Yorker's Avatar Comment 2 by Yorker

That was an interesting audio clip. What struck me most was how it resonated with me, the bells of truth were ringing in my head and it starkly highlighted how the religious version of the source of morality, rung hollow and empty in my mind.

I am against the death penalty but also feel that under certain clearly defined circumstances, killing a person would be the right thing to do. I wonder if my response has a similar evolutionary history to that involved in the train dilemma?

The chimp episode made me think of "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", the book by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan; in it, Carl said that being a chimp was like being in the army, I'm not a biologist but I thought the chapter on chimpanzees was a masterpiece.

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 03:25:00 UTC | #8000

Yorker's Avatar Comment 3 by Yorker

Aha, I bought TGD a couple of weeks ago but missed that. Probably due to my habit of reading a book in random order.

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 05:10:00 UTC | #8008

Hugo's Avatar Comment 4 by Hugo

WOW, great clip, man some tough issues there.
I'd never kill my child, ever, but I would allow the group to make that decision.
As for pushing the man, is jumping myself an option?

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 06:04:00 UTC | #8013

nemo's Avatar Comment 5 by nemo

the same thought occurred to me too (about jumping myself). but the story preempts that possibility by making the man "big". so your jumping would not sve any lives, but the man's body would.

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 08:01:00 UTC | #8021

nemo's Avatar Comment 6 by nemo

i forgot to add that obviously if my jumping could save the lives, that would make the moral question totally different. then it would be about the so called "golden rule".

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 08:04:00 UTC | #8022

Aaron's Avatar Comment 7 by Aaron

I think it's important to point out the superfluous nature of theologians' attempts to discredit the natural source of morals. For example, they often resort to word games by asking things such as "why is murder wrong?" which, they hope, will lead the misguided atheist to admit that morals are nothing more than subjective feelings. It's important to point out that such questions are, in essence, moot points; our universal ability to recognize murder as being wrong is stronger than our ability to articulate why, and the same universal ability is evidence in and of itself of a purely natural, darwinian source of ethical behavior. Ask ten different people why murder is wrong and you may very well get ten different answers, but regardless, they all recognize it as being wrong. These are natural urges, or lusts if you will, that require no critical thinking or rationalization to work for us.

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 10:56:00 UTC | #8045

godma's Avatar Comment 8 by godma

Good point, Aaron.
Maybe the best answer to the theist's "why is X wrong?" would be something like "because we've evolved genetically and culturally to feel that it is wrong".

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 12:58:00 UTC | #8058

Aaron's Avatar Comment 9 by Aaron

I usually respond by pointing out that behavior, to some degree, is controlled by genetic information. We can take a pair of animals and begin breeding them- selecting offspring based on their behavior- and eventually produce two seperate groups of individuals that behave entirely diffently. Scientists in Russia were able to do this with rodents, and they wound up with one line of rats that were so docile they would hop into a person's hand. The other group, selectively bred for their aggressive behaviour, were so violent that they would attack the cages as soon as a human entered the room. This is how we were able to domesticate animals- by selective breeding based on their behavior.

With regard to humans, the genetic information of altruistic, sympathetic individuals was more likely to be passed along than the genetic information of violent or antisocial individuals within our early communities. This may be a form of self-domestication, similar in principle to the artificial domestication of animals such as pets and livestock.

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 14:48:00 UTC | #8063

Anat's Avatar Comment 10 by Anat

I'd say our moral instinct, the 'inner chimp' is tied strongly to our emotions (because that's how it evolved), which gives strong feelings of 'rightness' and 'wrongness', but it is limited in the range of consequences it is capable of modeling. The rational element of our moral thinking is capable of considering consequences remote in time and place,as well as secondary consequences. However it seems this kind of thinking does not have the same level of emotional impact, thus we feel less strongly about it. In any case, we can use reason both to broaden our moral thinking (by considering ultimate rather than immediate consequences) but also to reason away immoral behavior (ie find excuses). Use with caution!

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 20:14:00 UTC | #8095

Jim's Avatar Comment 11 by Jim

Last week I saw Richard Dawkins's presentation on C-span and learned of this wonderful website.

The two apparently contradictory answers that we would on the one hand sidetrack the train to kill only one innocent person instead of five, while on the other refuse to push our innocent neighbor to save them are complex responses. They are the culmination of a multitude of considerations influencing our decisions. Sidetracking the train seems a rather straightforward calculation: Do I want to allow five innocents to die, or do I intercede and reduce the number to one? But what if that one person is my daughter or my wife? What do I do now? Implicit in the first decision is the realization that the one innocent I kill is not someone I love or have reason to value above the other five. Regardless of what any moralist might say, we don't each count for one and only one. We are not ciphers. There is always a weighing of value, and it is a question of what-is-the-value-to-me calculation. This means that morality is ultimately egoistic. In essence, the conundrum asks us, Can you live with yourself knowing that you had killed an innocence person by saving five? You say yes, if it means pushing a button to divert a train. You say no, if it means pushing someone next to you onto the track.

In the first scenario, I see five men standing on a track. The track Y's just before the train approaches them, and the other leg of the Y leads to another man. All six are a part of this dangerous tableau. I sit above them and manipulate the track switch. Doing the math, without any reference to other values—that is, disregarding what, if any, value these individuals are to me—I decide to kill one of these stick figures instead of five.

The second scenario, however, has me sitting over the same impending disaster, but this time I have a flesh-and-blood person standing next to me. I am repulsed by the idea that I could push him onto the track and save the five. But why? Isn't the situation the same? Either way, don't I kill an innocent person to save others?

The answer is no, the scenarios are not the same. The first presents us with stick figures that are of no personal value to us except as ciphers. The second is exponentially more complex.

Hidden in our emotional revulsion to pushing our neighbor is the realization that we could jump to stop the train as easily as we could push him. Why sacrifice him? Would we want him to push us? Indeed, if morality is truly self-sacrifice, as so many philosophers and theologians have (wrongly) claimed, why don't we jump? Wouldn't that be the moral thing to do? Why isn't that a choice given us in this game?

And how many would say yes to sacrificing themselves to the five strangers? And how many of us, if we were one of those five, would expect someone else to give his life for ours?

We don't see the person standing next to us as a stick man. We view him close up, hear him breathing, can look into his eyes. We can imagine how he would feel in our hands as we pushed him onto the track. And we value him as a fellow human being more than the five stick figures, if only for these reasons. (This phenomenon must be akin to the aerial bomber who might be loath to put a bullet into the heads of a thousand people individually but drops his equally-lethal weapons from afar with, I assume, much less compunction.)

Now, what if all or one of the five below are loved ones? Do we push our neighbor now? Of course not. We don't ask that he sacrifice himself for our good (since they are our loved ones, saving them redounds to our good). Instead, we jump ourselves. And we do this from the egoistic reason that our lives wouldn't be worth living without doing so.

In conclusion, our monosyllabic answers to the two scenarios hide complex reasoning that renders the questions incommensurate.

Incidentally, to me, positing a gene (homunculus?) that makes moral decisions for us seems to border on superstition. Morality is a learned phenomenon, not something inborn. Moreover, there are very good reasoned arguments--i.e., not flimsy feelings based on intuition, emotion, or relativism--for considering the harming of others, including murdering them, morally wrong.


Sun, 19 Nov 2006 16:02:00 UTC | #8346