Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality

October 23, 2013

Robert Wright, The Atlantic

Squaring recent research suggesting we're "naturally moral" with all the strife in the world

Excerpt: In 1999, Joshua Greene—then a philosophy graduate student at Princeton, now a psychology professor at Harvard—had a very fertile idea. He took a pretty well-known philosophical thought experiment and infused it with technology in a way that turned it into a very well-known philosophical thought experiment—easily the best-known, most-pondered such mental exercise of our time. In the process, he raised doubts, in inescapably vivid form, about the rationality of human moral judgment.

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

Greene’s inspiration was to do brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution—keep as many people alive as possible—showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought.

If you put Greene’s findings in general form—human “reasoning” is sometimes more about gut feeling than about logic—they are part of a wave of behavioral-science research that in recent years has raised doubts about how much trust your brain deserves. The best-seller lists have featured such books as Predictably Irrational, by the Duke psychologist Dan Ariely, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which the Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman covers acres of research into humanity’s logical ineptitude.

But there’s a difference between this work and Greene’s work. Ariely and Kahneman spend lots of time in their books on financial and other mundane decisions, whereas Greene is focusing on moral matters. It’s one thing to say “Isn’t it crazy that you’ll drive 10 miles to save $50 on a $100 purchase but not to save $50 on a $500 purchase?” It’s another thing to say “Isn’t it crazy that you’ll dutifully kill a guy by pulling a lever but refuse on principle to give him a nudge that leads to the same outcome?” The first question is about self-help. The second question is about something more.

How much more? To judge by Greene’s new book, a whole lot more. It’s called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them—and, in case the title alone doesn’t convince you that the stakes are high, Greene writes that his book is about “the central tragedy of modern life”...

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