Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The experimenter’s dilemma

A lengthy feature in Prospect (“Matters of Life and Death”) describes the multiple experiments carried out by experimental philosophers seeking to understand the nature of ethical judgment. Those all turn around the famous trolley/footbridge dilemma: a runaway trolley is racing down a rail track and is going to kill five people. Would you pull a lever to divert it into a different track whether it will kill only one? And if you have the same situation, but you are standing on a footbridge above the track and the only way to avert the bloodbath is to push a “large” person standing next to you in front of the trolley. Would you do it? In the first case, most experimental subjects respond “yes,” on the basis of a simple utilitarian calculation: it is well worth saving five lives at the price of one. In the second case, most participants say they will not do it. And often cannot explain why. In my naïveté, I thought these thought experiments demonstrated that ethical judgments can be influenced by our instinctive emotional reactions. This is most likely to happen in situations which feel close-up-and-personal – like pushing someone to his death (I hope the gendered language would be acceptable here). When we operate a mechanical device (like those drones hunting down those Taliban militants in Pakistan?), it’s easier to keep our emotions at bay and rely on utilitarian calculations. A new crop of experimental philosophers, though, are unsatisfied with this interpretation. They want to know on the basis of what ethical doctrine exactly most people can decide to pull the lever, but would not push a warm, breathing human body in front of the racing trolley. So they design increasingly clever experiments to tease this out – in dozens of versions. What if the person on the second track had been tied down there by bullies? What if those bullies, unknowingly, had also put themselves in harm’s way by picnicking on the first track? What if the second track looped and joied the first track – in which case you would need to wish that the single person be killed in order to save the others? One scientist (“scholar” doesn’t seem the right word to describe this academic occupation) explains the goal off her experiments (for some reason, most of these practitioners are women): “Real-life cases have a lot of factors going on, and it’s hard to test whether it’s this factor that’s crucial or that factor. You have to artificially construct cases to focus on the factors that are important. It’s like the scientist in the lab who has to figure out whether, say, the dust particle makes a difference to friction, and tries to hold everything else constant.” You know, as they do it in real science. As I was reading, I was increasingly thinking: “What is wrong with these people? Why can’t they just accept the ‘fox doctrine’ (after the fox from the Little Prince) or the ‘Pascal doctrine,’ both stating that certain things can be understood only through the heart?” One possibility is that to the uniformly cheerful researchers conducting the experiments the different scenarios don’t feel all that different. So finding some coherent doctrine seems the only possible explanation for choosing one course of action over other similarly unpalatable options. On the face of it, this seems unlikely – the article says responses among experimental subjects are uninfluenced by social status or educational level. But the article also mentions a dispute during WW II between Winston Churchill and one of his cabinet ministers on whether to try to have more V1 cruise missiles rain over south London. The minister, policeman’s son, “perhaps felt more keenly … the risk that the people in the working-class areas of south London would be running.” So maybe there are some meaningful differences in how individuals think and feel about ethical dilemmas – and the philosophers conducting the experiments (like Churchill) are overly clever and upbeat outliers.