Wired magazine has an interesting article looking at how racial considerations appear to affect ethical decision-making. Here's a brief extract.
Perhaps most revealing is what Pizarro calls the “Kill Whitey” study. This was a footbridge problem — two variations on a footbridge problem in one, actually — that the team presented to 238 California undergrads. The undergrads were of mixed race, ethnicity and political leanings. Before they faced the problem, 87 percent of them said they did not consider race or nationality a relevant factor in moral decisions. Here the paper’s (.pdf) description of the problem they faced:
Participants received one of two scenarios involving an individual who has to decide whether or not to throw a large man in the path of a trolley (described as large enough that he would stop the progress of the trolley) in order to prevent the trolley from killing 100 innocent individual strapped in a bus.
Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. In both scenarios the individual decides to throw the person onto the trolley tracks.
Tyrone and Chip. Just in case you’re missing what Pizarro is up to:
While we did not provide specific information about the race of the individuals in the scenario, we reasoned that Chip and Tyrone were stereotypically associated with White American and Black American individuals respectively, and that the New York Philharmonic would be assumed to be majority White, and the Harlem Jazz Orchestra would be assumed to be majority Black.
So the guy on the bridge kills either Tyrone to save the New York Philharmonic or Chip to save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. How, Pizarro asked the students, did they feel about that? Was sacrificing Chip/Tyrone to save the Jazz Orchestra/Philharmonic justified? Was it moral? Was it sometimes necessary to allow the death of one innocent to save others? Should we ever violate core principles, regardless of outcome? Is it sometimes “necessary” to allow the death of a few to promote a greater good?
There's lots more at the link.
I find the author's approach interesting, but unconvincing. That's probably because I'm a moral absolutist in many ways. My moral framework says, for example, that I never, under any circumstances, have the right to cause the death of another innocent human being. (Note the emphasis on 'innocent'. If that human being is charging me with a knife in his hand, all bets are off!). That being the case, the race of the person or persons near me, or in danger of death, is/are irrelevant. I cannot morally take any action that would deliberately kill an innocent person, even if it means saving the lives of others. The cards will have to fall where they may. I didn't deal them, and therefore I'm not responsible for the way the hand plays out.
There's an interesting conundrum in this whole situation: the well-known 'principle of double effect'. To put it very briefly, this states that if an act may have both good and bad effects, and the actor desires and intends the good, and there is sufficient justification for that good effect, then the associated and unavoidable bad effect may become ethically and morally justifiable. Let's take the example of a pregnant woman who's diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. The only possible medical treatment is removal of the uterus. This would save her life, but at the same time would mean death for the child she's carrying. Under those circumstances, where there is a good and a bad effect, the moral evil of abortion would not apply, as the death of the child is an unintended but unavoidable 'double effect' of the morally good choice to save the mother's life. In the article under discussion, I note that the authors of the study don't appear to have spent much time examining this moral principle, which would certainly apply to some of their case studies.
What say you, readers? Did any of the author's moral perspectives give you food for thought?