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3/25/14

How Your Brain Is Hard-Wired: The Trolley Problem

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Here is an old favorite among moral philosophers, a thought experiment that reveals something about human nature. As a thought experiment it is divorced from everyday reality and is designed to illicit the reasons conscious or unconscious as to why people would do certain things. In this case, it is a clever device to make you think in a certain way and to discover your motives for an action. Understand that in a thought experiment you have no other options than those given you. You cannot read into the experiment your own novel twist to solve it, otherwise it would be useless as an intellectual exercise. There are no trick solutions nor any hidden information. Determine what you would do in both illustrations 1 and 2.

Study the two illustrations and think about the consequences of each possible action. Then ask yourself what you would do in each of the two cases. What would be your reason for doing it?

After you are finished, read on.

In illustration 1 most people opt for throwing the switch. Their reason is that it is better to kill one person than many.

In illustration 2 most people have serious misgivings about pushing the big man off the bridge to save the workers below. He is an innocent man, they say, and they find shoving him to his doom as morally reprehensible.

But what's the difference? The one man they opt to kill in illustration 1 is also innocent.  He would have done nothing to deserve his death.

Yes, what's the difference? When people think about it many comment that the lesser of two evils is to kill a single man in illustration 1. Although the big man on the bridge is also one person, they say that he--unlike the single worker on the track--would not have been involved in the accident unless he were shoved onto the track. He becomes a means to an end. In the Soviet Union with its philosophy that the means justifies the end, millions of people died, were sacrificed in the name of progress.

I think the answer is much less philosophical than that and goes to the heart of human nature and the way the brain is wired.

People have been asked, What if illustration 2 could be constructed like illustration 1. Instead of touching the big man, what if you could trip a lever to drop him through a trap door onto the track?

They find that easier. More people then choose to let him drop. They don't have to touch him.

The brain is wired in such a way that emotions influence our decisions. In connection with the trolley problem, brain imaging has shown that--when people think about shoving the man on the bridge--brain areas activate that involve emotions and motor planning.

In terms of a person having to use the track switch or the trap door lever, brain imaging shows that only areas involved in rational thinking light up. They have no messy feelings to deal with.

Back in the dawn of our species, humans interacted with one another by eating meat over a fire, which touched chords of sharing. Nothing was abstract or remote, and so emotions developed from nearness of others. Today in a global economy, the human race has trouble thinking outside the box of their own society's feelings. A Taliban fanatic would have no qualms about pushing the button at some nuclear silo in Pakistan.

We are not the sublimely rational creatures we think we are. Our brains are incredibly complicated systems regulating our breathing, timing our drowsiness, fueling our sex drive, and we don't have a clue any of it is going on. We just feel some effects. Math majors and artists are both driven by the (moral) beast within.

I say moral because over some years reactions to the trolley reveal what cognitive psychology and neuroscience have confirmed about human nature. Freud is obsolete with his snake pit of the unconscious mind and its dark, barely fathomable urges. Instead, the unconscious serves to guide us in our human relationships. Let us come to understand that it provides insufficient guidance in a modern, abstracted and global society.  Bookmark and Share

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