Moral Intuitions (alternate title : Who framed roger rabbit?)

Disclaimer: Haven’t seen the movie “Who framed roger rabbit”, nor know the storyline- just used the alternate title as it is eye-catching:-))

Classical Moral intuitions research has focused on identifying how we arrive at moral conclusions. The Kohlberg’s developmental theory is based around identifying the reasoning process, by which, the children arrive at a moral decision regarding a moral dilemma; or identifying an action that would be ethical in a given situation; or forming a moral judgment regarding a given event-outcome.

Much of the discourse is limited by the few example problems around which these dilemmas are framed. A good example is the famous Trolley problem, in which one has to decide whether it would be worth sacrificing a single person, in lieu of five or six others; and its variations involving whether one is in direct contact with the person and is performing an active action of ‘sacrificing’ the person by pushing him/her from the footbridge; or is merely a bystander and passively (from a distance) pulling a switch that would direct the trolley to a different track. Variations include whether the person (who if sacrificed could save five or six others) is related to you, or whether he is innocent (a child playing on an unused track) vis-a-vis those being sacrificed are careless and thus not worth saving ( stupid children playing on running tracks).

While some framing of this Trolley problem are in utilitarian terms- one life versus many others, other framings are in emotional & selfish versus sacrificial & rational terms -your child or your action vs other children and universal action (by universal action I mean the same action irrespective of whether you are in touch with the person (the footbridge case) or are merely pulling a lever).

The framing involving ‘good/ careful’ vs. ‘bad/careless’ in the good-boy-on-unused-track and bad-boys-on-used-tracks fascinates me the most.

At the outset, let me clarify that in regards to moral dilemmas of this sort, my personal position is reasonably clear. In a discussion some years back with some good friends (not over a cup of coffee; but over an intranet discussion group:-) , while we were discussing this dilemma, I had surmised that while we may debate endlessly what the action should be, the most reasonable guess one can make is that there would be no action at all. In the Trolley switch case, this means that the person my get so much frozen by the decision pressure and inability to arrive at a conclusion, that he/she may not pull the switch at all (the switch that would direct the train/ trolley to the unused track ). Instead, he may just remain frozen- just like one gets frozen sometimes in times of extreme fear- a third reaction apart from the usual fight or flight response. Yet, dilemmas, such as these, and our ‘hypothetical’ responses to these may somehow tell us more about how we reason about moral situations- whether it is post hoc (just like it is claimed that Consciousness is post hoc)- and if so, why would we be constructing different post-hoc moral reasons for the same dilemma when it is framed in different terms. (Hauser’s research shows that the intuitions are different in the classical trolley (switch) versus the personal contact (footbridge) cases.)

Marc Hauser’s lab is doing some excellent research in this field and though I have taken their Moral Sense Test, I have a feeling that I have stumbled on a new type of framing and dilemma (that was not present in their tests…though one can never be sure:0) that may enable us to reflect a bit more on our moral reasoning process.

I’ll frame it first in neutral terms, and then try to refine it further. Let’s call this the Aeroplane problem. Suppose that you are traveling in an Aeroplane, and there is only one doctor present on board, and the Air hostess staff is not sufficiently educated in all first aids. Suppose further that you are way above ground, with any emergency landing at least 20 minutes distant. Suppose, that their are two people on the Airplane, who start getting a third heart attack (they are both carrying medical histories/ badges that tell that it is the third and potentially fatal heart attack (BTW, why is the myth of 3rd heart attack being fatal so enduring?) ), and the heart attacks are almost simultaneous, and only the lone doctor on board can give them the first-aid and resuscitation (CPR) that could ensure that they both remain alive, till the airplane makes an emergency landing (the emergency landing may itself risk the life of all passengers slightly). Now, when all other details are unknown, it is potentially futile to ask which one to attend- you may as well choose one patient and concentrate all efforts on him/her.

Suppose, one of them is an octogenarian, while the other is a teenager. Now, which one should the doctor choose? Suppose one is an old lady, while the other is a young brat, which one should the doctor choose?

Suppose the Doctor has Asthma, and no body else knows how to administer the oral inhalation medicine correctly except for the doctor; then should the doctor take care of a patient or should he/she take care of himself/herself? what if there is only one patient and one doctor? What if there is one doctor and many patients? Would the decision be easy?

Suppose further, that out of the two persons, one is faking heart attack symptoms, while the other is genuinely suffering; should the doctor be able to find out who is who? Would this make the dilemma easier? Would we (the airplane travelers) respect the doctor’s decision and let him /her attend to the person s/he thinks is genuinely suffering from heart attack?

Suppose further, that both the patients are terrorists and the doctor says that both are faking symptoms, potentially to hijack the plane; would we listen to the doctor and let him not attend to any of the potential causalities? Or would we try to help ourselves, potentially causing bedlam and fulfilling the plans of the terrorists?

I am sure by now you can conceive of other similar scenarios!! (one that comes to my mind is both the doctor and patient are accomplices and terrorists on-board to cause bedlam and mayhem and hijack the plane. Please let’s add as many scenarios in the comments as possible.)

Now let us take a moment to reflect on our moral reasoning process. I believe most of us would be prone to go with our intuitions and would think about rationalizing our decisions later. Thank god, we do have some moral intuitions to guide us in time of indecision/ threat perception.

Suppose that instead of framing the last few scenarios in an anxiety provoking setting (involving terrorists and what-nots), we framed this in terms of forward-looking, futuristic terms.

Suppose that one of the patients is a very promising child (has an IQ of 200/ or is a sport prodigy and is as well-known as Sania Mirza) while the other is again a famous scientist indulging in some ground-breaking research (Say Marie Curie, whose Radioactivity discovery is definitely a very useful discovery); then who should the doctor choose? Should she look at their achievements or potentials? Or should she remain immune to all this and dispassionately ignore all (ir)relevant information? or should s/he be affected by age, gender, race, achievement, potential etc?

Suppose further that instead of well-known celebrities like Abdul Kalam , or Sachin Tendulkar, who are present in the plane, the younger patient is a product of genetic engineering, destined to become a great scientist/ artist/ whatever; while the older patient is working on a top-secret classified dual use research which potentially could help humanity overcome the impending fuel crisis (and related arctic melting, ozone hole etc crisis-she is working on a hydrogen powered (water as fuel) engine, which could be used in automobiles as well as in outer Space like Mars, where only water may be available for refueling). Also, both these persons are not well-known currently and not recognizable by the doctor/ crew/ passengers. Death of the older person would put humanity back by at least 40 years- only after 40 years would someone like the younger patient that the doctor saved (in case the doctor let the older patient die), could have worked out the designs for using water as a fuel again. Now which one should the doctor attend to? Should s/he attend to the young one or the old one? The future or the present?

Should she take the time out to see the credentials (the proof that this child is genetically modified to have a good IQ/ whatever and the proof that this scientist is indeed working on classified research that may potentially help millions) of the patients or should she just act on her intuitions? Why is the reasoning different here as compared to the threat-scenario?

What if the instead of Science frames above, we used frames of Art(I mean artistic frames and not the frames that visual artists use for paintings:-)….Art is much more than visual art:-).

Suppose, that one of them (the older one) could become a Paul Gauguin; while the other (younger one) could become a Van Gogh (again I mean an artist like Gogh and Gauguin, not their works of arts:-) ), now which one should the doctor choose? Why does it become irrelevant as to who should be saved if the frame is of Art, but a question of life-and-death if the frame is of Science?

Finally, some things to note and think about: the Airplane problem is entirely framed in life-saving context (doctor helping save a life); while the Trolley problem is entirely in death-prevention context (someone acting messiah and preventing death of five Vs One; good vs careless etc). Again, Doctors usually give rise to feminine frames with one assuming a doctor to be a female; while the Foreman’s are usually entirely male. I hardly believe that framing is all of the problem; or that the framing is done deliberately: the framer of the problems/ dilemmas is equally susceptible to the same framing effects that the readers have experienced-while formulating a problem (a moral dilemma) one may fall prey to the same sorts of Frames that we become susceptible to when thinking about the problems (the moral dilemmas). Thus, the aphorisms, that (paraphrasing) “It is equally important to ask the right questions, as it is to find the answers to the problems”. Translated in the language of the scientific research world, this becomes that “it is important to design good experiments/ observation-study-setups and be very careful about the study designs.”

Returning back to the issue of framing of moral problems, if the frame exists it is also because of our history: just like the moral intuitions – that at times help us survive and at times let us fall prey to frames- are due to our shared evolutionary history: so too the frames we use to cast and perceive the moral dilemmas are rooted in our history ( Nothing profound- what I mean by shared history is that someone formulated the problems in those terms, silly!!.)

I believe the problem is more with our inability to detach ourselves form frames and take more reasonable perspectives and know when to use our intuitions and when reason. As the saying goes “It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.” Mark Twain (1835-1910). Alternately, another related saying that comes to mind(paraphrasing) ” God, give us the ability to change what we can, humility to accept what we cannot and the wisdom to know what is what”. We perhaps cannot change the historical frames or intuition that are in place, but we can definitely change our moral reasoning powers and following a developmental framework have compassion and understanding towards those who might not be employing the highest levels of moral reasoning.

Finally, If you are interested in my moral intuitions, I hypothesize, that the doctor (in the plane) would not be affected by Age, gender, race, potential, achievement etc would overcome his/ her Implicit Associations and would not try to find-out or gather-information deliberately to determine which life is more valuable- He/she would end up rushing between the patients and helping both at the same time; but if he/she is an intelligent doctor, would definitely save his/her life first, if suffering from Asthma, so that he/she could take care of others. This might seem like a rationalization (saving one’s life so that one can help in whatever small way others), but one should use intelligence, even before emotions or moral instincts take center stage.

I believe that in the Airplane Scenario described above, there is a potential for a histrionic/hysteric reaction of the crew and travelers, as everyone tries to help the patients, (especially if no doctor is on-board) and that this may be the reverse of the bystander-effect like phenomenon I have hypothesized might happen in the Trolley problem (freezing and taking no action when a train is approaching towards five or six humans or towards a lone human). To make more sense of preceding line please read comments by Mc
Ewen on Mind Hacks post titled ” “Mass Hysteria” closes school”. Also, a solemn and personal request, please do not jump to conclusions, read or try to co-relate things out of context- or try to make sense of psychological concepts based on everyday usage of terms. If you do not understand any concepts mentioned above, read related literature and focus on that aspect alone- to the exclusion of other distracting eye-catchers. In case of any persisting confusions, feel free to ask your local psychiatrist/ psychologist/ psychology professor as to what those concepts mean.

PS: I believe that the post has become difficult-to-read, this was not done intentionally. Again, there might be spelling mistakes/ grammatical errors- don’t get alarmed/ confused that this reflects racing thoughts etc- just point them out and I’ll fix them- most of the times the editorial errors (some of them quite funny) are due to lack of time to revise/ lethargy to read. Also, this is also a part of my ongoing series, where I have posited that their may be gender differences in cognitive styles. Some of that may also be a required reading.

Effecient Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

One thought on “Moral Intuitions (alternate title : Who framed roger rabbit?)

Comments are closed.