Friday, September 17, 2010

Ethics and race

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?



Old NFO said...

Most of these mind games are BS... It's one thing to 'think' about doing something like this, reality is another kettle of fish entirely...

George said...

There is also a well documented cognitive bias where people will choose risk when the outcome is phrased as a positive, but shun risk when the outcome is phrased as a negative. See

Groundhog said...

I'm a white conservative. My first thought regarding this "scenario" was that it would never occur to me, especially in the heat of the moment, to kill someone else to save others. If ANY thought would have occurred to me, it would have been to throw myself in front of the trolly just to try.

I think what it really says is that there are certain bastards out there that do think like this and I hope to God my life never depends on one.

Anonymous said...

Groundhog echoed my thoughts. I could understand deciding to throw yourself in the path of the trolley to save a bunch of people, but the idea of throwing someone else is just strange.

The ends do NOT justify the means. Ever.


Idaho Mike said...

Well said Groundhog! Matters not about the race, they are human beings. Throw myself to save them? Of course, with no thought about going to that unknown country, except to meet my maker....

Shrimp said...

There are plenty of people I would love to throw into the path of the trolley, but the problem is, Congress isn't always in session, and it would be just my luck to run into this scenario while they're on break.

Seriously though, Groundhog spoke my thoughts on the matter pretty well.