Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 4

The Trolley Problem. Experimental psychologists are fond of posing the following moral problem to their subjects:

A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Most people resist the idea of pushing the fat man over the bridge. If, however, the problem is reworked, so that the five people can be saved (at the cost of one life) merely by flipping switch, most people accept the necessity of sacrificing one life to save five. The question experimental psychologists are eager to answer is:

...why do countless studies reveal that when confronted with the otherwise equivalent version where you have to physically knock someone off the footbridge to save five others, the vast majority ... -- a staggering 90 percent -- believe it wrong to do so? Logically, it's the same trade-off in numbers saved and killed. The answer, however, has nothing to do with logic. It's much simpler: the two situations feel different. Take a moment to think of how it would feel to wrap your hands around the flesh of another living, breathing human as he teeters perilously at the edge of a high bridge, to see the fear in that person's eyes as he struggles fruitlessly to escape your grip. Assuming you don't have psychopathic tendencies and aren't smiling right now, that pit you feel in your gut when thinking about shoving the guy, even to save five others, results from intuitive systems ... screaming: "Don't do it!" For most of us, this impulse usually wins. [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 46-47]

The focus here is not on how the Objectivist Ethics would try to solve (or dismiss as irrelevant) the trolley problem, but how Rand's blank slate view of human nature can be squared with the "staggering 90%" who believe it wrong to push a man onto the track to save 5 others, even though most think it right to sacrifice one to save five if it can be done by merely flipping a switch. Rand believe that man's "emotional mechanism" is blank at birth. So where do people get the content or "premise" that causes them to flinch from pushing the a human being to his death but not flinch when pulling a switch to achieve the same result? Where in Kant (or any moral philosopher) is there a premise that would enable a person to make such a distinction and, even more to the point, feel it? And what about the psychopath who smiles at the thought of pushing the man (but perhaps regrets killing one to save five)? How do you explain the psychopath's absence of emotion? What premise did he fail to imbibe?

When confronted by such experiments, Rand's view of emotions appears hopelessly inadequate. Yet it gets even worse as we the experiment deepens. It turns out that if you show clips from SNL videos immediately before presenting subjects with the Trolley problem, three times as many individuals choose to push the fat man onto the tracks than did before. How on earth are the results of that experiment supposed to be explained on the basis of Rand's theory of emotions?

Here's how Desteno and Valdesolo explain their experimental results:

Decades of research have shown that when we're experiencing an emotion, it can't help coloring all our actions and decisions -- even ones that have nothing to do with what we're feeling in the first place.... Simply put, we all unwittingly use our emotional states as information, or cues, to guide our decisions about what's likely to happen or what we should do. If we're feeling sad, we can't help feeling that depressing things must be just around the corner.

In the present case, those who watched the SNL skit were understandably feeling more buoyant and cheerful.... As a result, the visceral negative feelings that otherwise would have been triggered by the thought of pushing another to his death were momentarily blocked. With these gut feelings held at bay, it became easier to rationally weigh the consequences of the two scenarios and conclude, quite logically, that it is morally acceptable to sacrifice one life to save five others. [ibid, 45-46]

In short, it is very difficult to square the experimental evidence concerning the relationship of emotions to moral assessments with Rand's ex cathedra pronouncements declaring emotions to be caused by subconscious premises.


Ken said...

....Rand's ex cathedra pronouncements declaring emotions to be caused by subconscious premises.

So she wanted it to be logic all the way down? But research more and more shows that it's emotion and impulse all the way up, with the rational part of the mind often reduced to coming up with post-hoc narratives to explain what you just did.

Coincidentally, today had an article on "ways your brain can malfunction" ( Actually it's not all that much of a coincidence, since this is just the latest in a series of similar articles, all based on the recent research on how our brains and minds work.

gregnyquist said...

Actually it's not all that much of a coincidence, since this is just the latest in a series of similar articles, all based on the recent research on how our brains and minds work.

This is very true. The shift away from the old classical model (the conscious mind discovering truth via logic) has been far more dramatic and sweeping than I could have ever imagined when, in the early 90s, I first began to suspect there was something wrong with Rand's "reason." And what started as a few lone voices in the 50s and 60s (e.g., Polanyi, Oakeshott) has turned into a deafening chorus, backed by reams of scientific evidence. If you believe in science, if you believe in experience, you can't really believe that Rand's model of cognition and the emotions accords with reality. It's just not credible any more, even as speculation. You might as well speculate that the earth is flat or that Gremlins created and infest the universe; for Rand's view is not a jot more credible.

Wells said...

First one thing. There really is resistance in a human being to actually killing another human being which more easily manifests itself when killing someone with one's bare hands than would when using a device like a trolley switch, or a gun for that matter. (And even less so when using something that doesn't let you even see the 'enemy' like a battleship, or an airplane.(I imagine that using mines or bombs that you simply place then walk away have even less psychological consequences.)) The book On Killing goes into this in some detail.

About the Trolley problem proper, pulling the lever (Or pushing the guy over the ledge) is probably the correct answer, but most people simply won't do it because there is a difference between actually killing someone and letting someone die. By correct answer I don't want anyone to get the idea that it is a good answer, because it is not, it is a bad answer, but probably the least bad answer.

This website talks about moral dilemmas from the point of view of Machiavellian statecraft. The argument that can be extracted is that a politician is someone who society pays to actually pull the lever when it needs to be pulled.

Ian Berger said...

Honestly, this is what happens when you have a system that doesn't take love and compassion into account as a fundamental motivator of mankind. Rationality is fine, but without a motive besides pleasure seeking and self-aggrandizement, it serves an amoral master.

Of course Rand would disagree with me, calling me amoral for inflicting a system of morality on a human. Yet I've learned that there are far greater things a person can do than just make himself into one of Rand's ├╝bermensches.

Ken said...

As a rational actor, I should do nothing. Pushing the man over the edge is a crime, and I could also be sued in civil court by his survivors. Doing nothing is not a crime, and I would certainly win any civil suit by the relatives of the five people killed, who in any case would be targeting the deeper pockets of the trolley company.

(I feel curiously unclean.)

Lloyd Flack said...

Perhaps the answer is that there is no answer that will not leave you feeling unclean. There are situations where all choices are bad and anything you do will upset your peace of mind. The nature of the universe and human nature is such that we should not expect that there will always be a choice available that will preserve our peace of mind.

J. Goard said...


Your last comment doesn't address whether pushing the man would be the right thing to do. Given the same practical calculations you describe, one could argue that another bystander who pushes the fat man is morally akin to someone who rushes into a burning building to save strangers, whereas you are akin to someone watching thew building burn from across the street. The former threat is legal action and social stigma, the latter mortal danger from fire, but in both cases the active party would be a hero and yourself a coward.

Ken said...

@J. Goard: I believe I identified the action that would maximize my personal wealth and happiness, which is the only proper utility function.

What are these words "right" and "morally" and "hero" that you use?