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Morality & The Individual: The Role of the Passions in Moral Dilemmas

I never liked moral philosophy, it was strangely passionless. Philosophers spent careers searching for moral truths as if they were hidden on some cosmic shelf next to the transitive property of equality while ignoring the central and obvious fact that morality has to do with the subject and her emotions. Philosophers treated it as a separate entity, something that we can have or lose. But morality is about people, and what role you, the individual, play, matters.

Consider Joshua Greene’s take on the famous trolley problem, an old chestnut from moral philosophy. Most have heard the first version: A trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the tracks, its breaks are failing and nothing can stop it. Ahead is a fork in the tracks. If nothing is done, the trolley will kill five maintenance workers. You have the opportunity to flick a switch and divert the trolley onto another track where it will only kill one maintenance worker. Do you pull the switch? About 95 percent say yes.

Here’s Greene’s scenario: You are standing on a footbridge that overlooks the tracks. Again, a trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the track and will kill five maintenance workers if nothing is done. A fat man stands next to you. If you push him over onto the tracks he will stop the trolley and save the lives of the five maintenance workers. Doing this will also kill the fat man. Do you push him onto the tracks? Greene found that almost nobody say yes.

There are two points to Greene’s hypothetical. The first is that we treat moral dilemmas differently depending on how directly involved we are. When we push the fat man, it feels like we killed him. But we don’t feel like we killed the one maintenance worker when we flick the switch. The second is that we don’t understand moral dilemmas rationally. If we did, we would have no problem saying that we should flick the switch and push the fat man because both result in the same amount of lives saved; we’re not utilitarians.

Greene’s hypothetical doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination these days. Just think about unmanned drones, which have killed scores of people since the United States Military began using them in the mid 90s. Killing someone with a Predator somehow seems easier than killing someone with a gun at point-blank in the same way that killing someone by flicking a switch to divert the trolley is easier than pushing the fat man. In both cases the more removed we are from our actions the less conscience-heavy their consequences are. Predators also force utilitarian questions: what if a solider was killed trying to accomplish a mission a drone could have accomplished?

Adam Smith (along with his fellow Scot David Hume) recognized these moral issues a few centuries ago in his less celebrated but equally insightful The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when he proposed the following: How would the average European feel if he discovered that the entire Chinese empire was swallowed by an earthquake? Sad and sorrowful, but he would nonetheless go on with his work and sleep soundly. But what if he was told that he will lose his little finger the next morning? He wouldn’t sleep a second. And, moreover as Smith wonders, how willing would the man be to trade his finger for all of China?

Smith’s point is that empathy depends on distance. We want to think we are morally sound, but the more accurate picture is that we care more about people close to us, and especially ourselves. Again, we don’t need to travel into our imaginations to understand what Smith was driving at. Just think about disasters of the last decade: Hurricane Katrina; the Tsunami of 2004; Earthquakes in China, Japan and Haiti. Unless you are from New Orléans, have close family from southeast Asia or best friends from central China, Japan and Port-au-Prince, it’s likely that these disasters didn’t boggle your conscience too much; you watched Anderson Cooper do his reporting, gave a few dollars to the Red Cross and showed up for work Monday morning.

On other hand, the most tragic events of the last decade (for those not immediately involved in these horrible disasters), probably only involved one or a few people, the death of a loved one for example. One psychologist who understands our tendency to be affected more by what is apparent – as opposed to what is difficult to imagine – is Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. Slovic devised a simple yet clever experiment to illustrate this. He created two groups and asked each how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. Here was the catch: the first group saw a photo of a starving Malawian child while the second read a series of statistics about starvation in Africa. He found that the group that saw the photo of the Malawian girl donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents. The statistics group, on the other hand, donated about 50 percent lower on average. Riding the same wavelength as Smith, Slovic’s study suggests that empathy increases the closer victim is (either physically or virtually).

What does all this say about morality? That the philosophers had it backwards; our moral deliberations depend on the passions. This point has been made several times in both academia and the popular literature, but it is worth repeating because people will screw up understanding moral rights from wrongs as long as they think of moral truths as immaterial nuggets buried deep in a mountain waiting to be mined. We can use science – cognitive science namely – to understand where our moral intuitions come from to better understand what we ought to value and how we ought to act.

Paul Slovic (2007). “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide Judgment and Decision Making DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-8647-1_3

Greene, J., Nystrom, L., Engell, A., Darley, J., & Cohen, J. (2004). The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment Neuron, 44 (2), 389-400 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2004.09.027

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. The trouble is that these hypothetical examples is that they’re a bit too removed from reality. Most of us are not drone pilots. I’m not actually faced with pushing people onto rail-road tracks to save other people. I could answer the question, but my honest assessment is that in such a situation I probably would not act at all – I would probably freeze because I could not weigh the factors and the stress would overload my brain.

    As you say we don’t make these choices rationally, we act on emotion and then rationalise. I had a marketing exec tell me this 20 years ago – so it doesn’t seem like news. Clearly advertising has worked on this principle for decades (if not forever). Even at the most objective level we assign value to facts based on how we feel about them – which is clear in the work of may neuroscientists. Antonio Damasio was making this same point in Descartes’ Error (1994).

    So these hypothetical situation which do not involve any jeopardy and do not provoke the emotional responses that would actually accompany a real life or death situation are next to worthless. My working hypothesis would be that it’s impossible to predict what any individual might actually do based on how they answer these kinds of questions.

    And isn’t it blindingly obvious that we care about our kin and community more than others? Are we not social primates? And is this not what social primates do? The more amazing fact is that we are capable of rising above our primate behaviour and caring about the fate of outsiders. How do we do that? And why?

    November 19, 2011
    • sammcnerney #


      1) I think most moral dilemma’s are too removed from reality. But what do you about the Katrina, Tsunami, Earthquake examples? Surely you can relate to those. I intentionally used those examples because I have the same worry as you.

      2) I don’t think these hypothetical situations are worthless. Greene’s work has been very valuable in our understanding of the brain.

      3) It is obvious that we care more about our kin and community. But part of the point of this post is to deliver that message to philosophers who don’t see it as obvious.

      4) Number of great books in regard to your last sentences. I would start with Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle

      November 19, 2011
      • That’s way more clever than I was exctneipg. Thanks!

        August 28, 2013
      • Dear Lumo,I’m not yet into the maths of string thoery. I don’t want to read 9900 pages as I don’t have much spare time. Could you summarise the important information briefly, or suggest the best book on string thoery to read? I’m particularly interested in M-thoery and supergravity. It needs to be something where the maths has a physical basis following from experimental facts if possible, as abstract speculation in maths is not a good approach to me. I’d basically like a book like “Warped Passages” with the major equations added in and explained clearly.Many thanks if you have any suggestions for books or articles that would be helpfulBest wishes,Nigel

        November 5, 2013
  2. One big difference is that in the bridge case, you have the opportunity to talk to the guy on the bridge and in the “distant guy on the track”, you don’t. So in the first case, you ask the guy on the bridge to sacrifice himself. His choice, not yours. There have been many self-sacrificing heroes so maybe he will but nobody put you in charge. In the other case, circumstances put you in charge and the scenario is meant to say, nobody else can save them. So in this case, your choice and you must act.

    November 19, 2011

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