Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Morality of Morality Tests

About 25 years ago I was asked to participate in a study of morality with questions like this:

Here's a moral scenario:

A man is sitting near the side of the road when he sees a truck speeding along. It is headed towards a group of five men, who do not hear or see it, and if nothing appears in the road, it will certainly hit and kill them. Across the road is another man sitting in front of his house. If the man who is sitting by the road calls out to the man by his house and says 'come here,' the man will walk into the road in the path of the truck, be killed, and stop it from continuing on toward the five, saving them. If the man sitting by the road says nothing, the truck will travel on and kill the five. The man decides to call out so the one man is killed and the five men are saved.

Did the man do something wrong? Take a second and rate his behavior on a five point scale, with 1 being "morally impermissible" and 5 being "morally virtuous".

There were other situations, like train tracks where the man had the ability to throw a switch and move the train from a track in which he would kill 5 to a track on which he would kill one. In this scenario, it was mentioned that the one man was on a track that he knew was never used, and the 5 were on a track that was frequently used.

I refused. I thought the situation made no sense. And it bothered me to be asked to choose who lives and who dies in a hypothetical situation. I do not want to make such a choice unless it is absolutely necessary.

Why are five men sitting in the street?

If one man can see /hear / feel the truck approaching, why can’t the others?

If the one man across the street can hear the aware man, why can’t the other 5?

If the driver will stop after hitting one man, what would he do if that man threw his shoe and hit the windshield?

Why wouldn’t the man who is called into the street, look both ways before crossing?

How does the aware observer know that the truck driver has no breaks?

No horn?

No ability to swerve off the road and avoid the men?

If the one man who does know the truck is approaching thinks that killing one person is better than killing five, then why doesn’t he jump into the roadway himself?

Now, Linda Abarbanell and Marc D. Hauser of Harvard University, have published a paper entitled Mayan morality: An exploration of permissible harms

in which they record answers to this and other morality questions, provided by rural Mayans, and postulate moral cultural aspects of this Mayan population.

I discussed this paper with a girlfriend. She thought maybe the 5 men in the road were blind and deaf. Even blind and deaf people could feel the vibration in the road from an approaching truck.

She thought maybe the blind and deaf men couldn’t tell the difference between a truck and a large beast. Either way, I think they’d want to get out of the road.

Is this really a study of omission and commission, as is the stated intention? With all these unspoken variables and unknowns, I don’t see any clear calls.

I also doubt that Mayan rural culture is different from urban American culture. Most humans would say that the 5 men who chose to sit in the road were taking their chances, possibly playing chicken. And the man on the sidewalk, minding his own business, willing to come help if called, is playing it safe. I think in any human culture, an observer does not have the right to kill the man playing it safe in order to save the 5 who are taking an unnecessary risk.

Accidents happen because we don’t have all the facts.

This situation reminds me of a morality test for 3-year-olds. If a 3-year-old is asked which child did the worse thing: a child helping his mother wash the dishes and accidentally drops and breaks 5 of them, or a child who is angry and throws and breaks one dish, a 3-year-old will pick the child who broke 5 as having done something worse, because he broke more dishes.

A better test of morality would involve realistic situations. I find myself wondering why any rural Mayans were willing to spend their time answering these questions. And what sort of people approved these questions as valid for a study of morality?

I have a new question: what is the morality of asking people to fictionally kill their neighbors?

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