Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Question of Moral Justice

I've already extolled the virtues of NPR's program, Radio Lab, on this blog. Every week, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich select a subject--usually something from the world of science or philosophy--to discuss.

On Sunday night, I listened to a show on moral justice. Essentially it explored the question of whether morality is innate or learned. What do you think?

The show started with a very famous thought experiment. I've heard it posed and discussed multiple times in the past. Here it is:

You are standing beside a trolley track. Ahead of you on the track are five men working. Their backs are toward you. Behind you, a trolley is coming toward toward the men. You've screamed, but the men can't hear you.

You realize there's a lever nearby that will divert the trolley onto another track. The only problem is that there's a man working on that track. By pushing on the lever, you'll save the five men, BUT . . . the single man will likely be killed.

Do you push the lever to save the five, knowing it will kill the one?

I'm not going to tell you how most people--across cultures, genders, and educational levels--respond. I will tell you that their responses are almost universally identical. Instead I'm going to pose a second thought experiment here:

This time you are standing on a foot bridge above that same trolley track. The same five men are working on the track below you. The same trolley is barreling toward the five workmen.

This time, there's no lever nearby. However, a very large man is standing beside you. You realize you could push him over, and he would land on the tracks and essentially stop the trolley . . . with his body.

Would you push him over, sacrificing the one to save the five?

Again, the vast majority of people responded the same way to this question.

To hear the show and compare your answer to theirs, go here.

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