Saturday, March 7, 2009

Moral Dilemmas

I was stumbling again today and I came across a Website called Some Moral Dilemmas. This websites gives a list of moral dilemmas from a book called Moral Reasoning, by Victor Grassian (Prentice Hall, 1981, 1992).

Reading this website brought back memories of an Ethics class I once took where I argued with a professor that ethics and morals have a religious background. If you don't know right from wrong because you were never taught as a child what God considered right or wrong than how can you know what is ethical or moral? This professor did not agree with my theory and brought up the question of atheists who don't believe in God, weren't taught right or wrong as decided by God. Did that mean atheists didn't know how to be ethical or moral? It made me think. But I think what I was trying to say is that for me, making ethical or moral decisions is based somewhat on WWJD - What would Jesus Do, even way before that saying became popular.

So in reading some of the moral dilemmas on the website I noticed that my decisions are based on my faith, my religious upbringing and WWJD. Read some of them and see what you think? For's a random one:

A Parent's Agonizing Choice
You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don't he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don't have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

My immediate reaction is that God says Thou Shall Not Kill. He doesn't say Thou Shall Not Kill unless your children are in mortal danger. So morally and ethically according to my religious upbringing I answered that I would not do what the guard wanted me to do. Not because it was my son, but because it's not in my hands to take another person's life. Even if taking that life will save another.

But then I got to thinking further, that peace officers and soldiers and doctors make those decisions everyday. Sometimes you have to take the life of someone to save the life of someone else. Peace officers may have to shoot a bank robber who has taken hostages in order to save the lives of the hostages. Soldiers may have to take lives of innocent bystanders in order to save the lives of even more humans in the community. A doctor may have to terminate a pregnancy in order to save the mother.

It's interesting to contemplate all these different dilemmas and choices that can be made and why. For instance, this dilemma:

The Fat Man and the Impending Doom
A fat man leading a group of people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time high tide will be upon them, and unless he is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the fat man, whose head is out of the cave. [But, fortunately, or unfortunately, someone has with him a stick of dynamite.] There seems no way to get the fat man loose without using [that] dynamite which will inevitably kill him; but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?
Since the fat man is said to be "leading" the group, he is responsible for their predicament and reasonably should volunteer to be blown up. The dilemma becomes more acute if we substitute a pregnant woman for the fat man. She would have been urged by the others to go first out of the cave.

What do you think? How would you vote?


  1. My comment is too long. So I have to bust it up across several comments.

    There is an interesting Radiolab episode which considers these type of questions. The question they used is this:

    Scenario 1.

    There are 5 workers repairing a railroad track. A trolley is coming and can't stop in time to not hit the workers. The workers are facing away from the trolley and don’t know that it is coming.

    There is a switch which could divert the trolley down another track. On that track is only 1 worker. You, of course, are standing next to the switch and can pull the lever to divert the trolley.

    If you do nothing 5 workers die. If you pull the switch only one worker dies.

    What do you do?

    Scenario 2

    Same scenario, a trolley will kill 5 workers.

    But this time you are standing on an overhead bridge next to a another person.

    If you push the person off the bridge, that person will die but stop the trolley.

    If you do nothing 5 people die. If you push the person off the bridge only one person dies.

    What do you do?

    Here is the link to the Radiolab podcast. This segment should be about 20 minutes long.

    Continued in the next comment.

  2. Continued from above:
    If you don't want bothered with listening, here was the results limited to my shaky memory. Most people find scenario 1 to be a no brainer. Pull the switch and save five lives at the cost of one. It doesn't even require much thought. Scenario 2 on the other hand is equally a no brainer. Almost no one is willing to push the person off the bridge, even though the calculation is exactly the same, take action and save five lives at the cost of one. So researchers asked what the hell is going on here? They stuck some people in a functional MRI scanner. This is a scanner that images energy consumption in different parts of the brain, so it can show what parts of the brain are activated when considering a problem or hearing a story. What they found was the two scenarios above lit up totally different parts of the brain and I don't remember exactly which parts, so don't hold me to this, but I think it went like this. Scenario 1 lit up a calculation area in the pre-frontal cortex. The morality of this problem is not much different than balancing your check book.

    Scenario 2 on the other hand lit up the "thou shall not kill" emotional and moral parts of the brain, can't remember where but in a more primitive area.

    So it reduces down to basically this. Our brains handle scenario 1 as a math problem. Scenario 2 is murder, yet they are have exactly the same outcomes. You take action you save five lives at the cost of one. But it seems that action at distance is different than being up close and personal.

    Now regarding your thoughts on whether God is the ultimate source of these moral question or not. I suspect (not know) that if you put any normal human being born within the past 5,000, if not 10,000 years in a fMRI, you would get the same results regardless of location, time, education, religious belief, or the quality of parenting. I think children raised in a Soviet orphanage would respond the same as Alicia raised by loving Catholics. Again, this is opinion and not fact, as such it worthless, but you asked what do I think, not for a 5 year research project. So I think these things are instinctual to human beings, not taught by religions. We evolved to not kill members of own species? Not sure, I suspect so, but it may require a tighter definition, we evolved not to kill those that we identify as being us.

    Let's jazz up our problem. Kick it up a notch, as they say.

    Scenario 2, you are on the bridge in 1942 in Bakersfield California. You know for a fact the person next to you is a Nazi spy. What do you do?

    Scenario 2. You are on the bridge with another unknown person (not bad not good--just unknown). To your horror you look down and it is 5 of your young children playing on the track (not workers).

    Scenario 2. You are standing next to an ox. Push the ox, save 5 men.

    I don't think many people would have a problem with pushing the ox off the bridge. The workers are us, the ox is not.

    What about the Nazi spy. He is dedicated to our defeat and enslavement, yet he is still a human being. Do you push the Nazi spy to save five American workers? I think I would. The spy is in the evil Nazi tribe. The workers are in our American tribe. The spy is less us than the five guys on the track.

    Your children. There are five of very much us (you) and one unknown. Goodbye Mr. Unknown!

    Still too long. Continued below

  3. Continued from comment 2.

    Now let's further complicate the matter. You are sitting on a jury of the person who did push another person off the bridge. No doubt about it, he pushed a person to his death. How do your rule?

    Change that another way. You are sitting on the jury of a wrongful death suit as a result of scenario 1. The plaintiff states that had the defendant not pulled the lever to the switch her husband would still be alive. The natural course of events would have spared her husband. The defendant’s actions killed her husband. How do you rule?

    Getting back to the basic problem of how much God has to do with this, my answer is not very satisfying. Everything and nothing. We have the ability to make moral judgments. So do dogs. Do dogs have souls? Many species of fish will gladly eat their own young. Do fish not have souls?

    Karen Armstrong brought up an interesting concept in one of her books, unfortunately it whetted my appetite but I quit reading the book for one reason or other. Basically she said that the atheists are right God does not exist. You look in a telescope, a microscope, an atom smasher, a computer, or any other scientific device, and you are not going to find God. Why? Simply because God does not exist in the fashion that you exist, or the Andromeda galaxy exists, or a bacteria exists, or the quantum foam exists. God is not of this world and trying to prove God's existence is a fool's game guaranteed to lose. If you and I are standing in a room and I see a green Martian and you don't, the burden of proof is on me. Ergo God does not exist. Scientific fact.

    Ask any physicist, how far back do we know and they will stop at the big bang. Not only do we not know what happened "before" the big bang, there is a good chance we can not know, and there is a good chance that there is nothing to know. So my theory is that God is an old white guy with a big long beard sitting in a rocking chair right on the other side of the big bang. And HE really loves Irish males, and created woman from an Irish guy's rib to serve him and keep entertained in bed. OK I am being a shithead, but a shithead on purpose. We tend to make God one of us. God is created in our own image and therefore, we can have very divine feelings about pushing Nazi spies off a bridge to save American workers.

    Arrrrggghhhhh! Still too long, continued in the next comment.

  4. Continued from comment 3 above.

    I have very good reasons to believe in God...I should have died in a head on collision right out there in your terre, and I have no logical explanation why I didn't. My belief has nothing to do with churches, Bibles, bishops, or Catechism. Simple fact...I should be dead and I am not. Well that is fine for me but it doesn't do much for the rest of the world. There are a hell of lot more people who have lost loved ones that could say, God did nothing to save my loved one. There is no God. Think of the trenches of WWI. Millions of men died horrific deaths on opposite sides of no man's land all praying to the same God.

    I am a full fledged evolutionist. I believe we evolved from some organic chemicals over the course of billions of years. I do not believe that we were created in seven days so many thousands of begats ago. But to me evolution is a process not a reason. Evolution describes how we got here, not why we got here.

    When I think of God sometimes I think of the international prototype kilogram standard. It is a precisely machined chunk of platinum iridium alloy sitting in an environmentally controlled vault in International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres France. God can strike me as some vial of TRUTH that floats around in the super space to super space well beyond the borders of our universe, and any of the infinite parallel universes. Other times I think of God as being a harried loving mother who loves her children enough to let them do whatever they want regardless of the consequences.

    So no, I don't think God is responsible for our morality, we evolved it. God does not exist. Not in this world. I believe in God, but not as a thing that exists in our universe. But, yes, I think God is responsible for the entire shebang, and for all I know God may be the shebang. So yes, God had everything to do with our evolution of morality.

    No I am not sorry for the length of this reply. I enjoyed writing it.

  5. Wow! And you shouldn't be sorry, this was fascinating! I did go and listen to the podcast you suggested and found that to be fascinating as well. I posed the questions to my mom who was just returning from Sunday Mass. She would pull the lever, but get this...she would also push the man. So I asked her, "but mom, why wouldn't you jump from the bridge yourself? Why would you kill someone else when you could stop the train by killing yourself." Her mouth just dropped open and she said, "I didn't think of that, but yes...that is what I would do."

    But obviously that is not what she would do (although I let her go to bed thinking that she would do that). I think her survival instincts kicked in. She would not have thought to throw herself on the tracks to save the 5, but she would throw someone else, which is still not the answer that 9 out of 10 people would choose. OMGosh, how interesting and exciting is this!

    As I was listening to the podcast, it came to my mind that most people would pull the lever because it keeps our hands and consciences clean. We only pulled a lever, no physical contact with anyone. But...when we realize that we physically have to touch someone to cause their death, that's a different story.

    This is fascinating and I am so glad that you read this and that you commented and now I'm jazzed about reading more and studying more on this subject!

    I welcome further comments from you or anyone else that might read this!


Please leave a comment.I would love to know your thoughts!