Immoral Altruism

Eighty-five per cent of them said it would be morally wrong to push one person off [a bridge] to save five [from a trolley], whether these people are brothers or strangers, confirming the idea that there is a rule against killing. However, despite thinking it wrong, 28 per cent said they would still push a stranger off to save five, while 47 per cent said they would push a brother off to save five brothers. (more)

One of the study’s authors offers an explanation:

Social cohesion demands we have rules, regardless of what they are, to help resolve disputes quickly and peacefully. DeScioli says our rule-making system is arbitrary, producing the belief that masturbation is “bad”, for instance.

But why resort to randomness when other good explanations remain? We naturally want simple clear social norms against murder. While simple rules create unfortunate incentives in specific cases, they are overall easier to monitor and enforce. This trolley problem seems to be one of those specific cases where many of us think that our simple rule against murder goes wrong – while we agree that killing in this case violates our murder norms, even so many of us are willing to violate such norms in order to help associates, especially if we care a lot about them.

While morality may be in general pro-social, it is not in every specific case. So there are times when you must choose between being moral, and being helpful.

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  • Ely

    The purely random suggestion seems indeed short-sighted. It’s like calling a particular draw from a Gibbs sampler or Metropolis-Hastings based sampler a ‘random’ draw during a simulated annealing process. Some external fitness function is imposing constraints and the moral beliefs that result from this are samples from some set of possible beliefs, but not arbitrarily random. Any random draw from social-rules-space is not likely to resemble draws that seem at least somewhat optimized for cultural life on Earth…

    • Arbitrary is not the same as random.

      The teaching that masturbation is bad is not from any sense of morality, it is about control and making rules that will not be followed so people will “sin” and require “forgiveness” which only the rule makers can provide so as to enrich themselves at the expense of the sinner.

      It is about the rule makers trying to make themselves more powerful.

      Many authority systems do this, make arbitrary laws so there is always something that bad people can be charged with so as to lower their status and raise the status of those in authority. The authority already knows who the bad people are, they are the people not in authority and those who question those who are in authority.

      • Ken

        it is about control

        It can also be about self control. Not masterbating is about discipline.

        It’s easy to be as cynical as you, particularly if you subscribe to the idea that “the bad people are… the people not in authority”. Your cynicism is wrong, but it makes yourself feel better because you’re not one of the ones in authority. After all, you wouldn’t be petty in any way if you were in authority.

  • Steve Massey

    Rules against masturbation and homosexuality are to keep enough people in society focussed on rearing children that your ideology perpetuates itself.

    • Agreed; the prior probability of the adaptive hypothesis seems much higher than for the arbitrary hypothesis.

  • Mark M

    I think the 28% who would push a stranger is over-stated. Perhaps they’d like to think they’d do it. When push comes to shove, so to speak, and a stranger is ripe for the pushing in front of a run-away trolley, I’d bet that a significant portion of that 28% would freeze and let the trolley continue to run away.

    I think a lot of it is simply personal involvement.

    If I’m a conductor and must stay on course and kill five, or change course and kill one, I’m personally vested and must make a choice. Killing one is not as bad as killing five, so I justify changing course.

    If I’m on the bridge, I’m a bystander. Not getting involved means I’m not part of the outcome. If I take action, I’m choosing to get myself involved in this train wreck and I’m choosing the fate of the person I’m pushing as well as those I’m saving. I have to live with the consequences, even if those consequences are just my regrets. I did it, I’d say to myself. I killed a person that didn’t deserve it. Even if I saved 5 others, the life I took would weigh on me. Would the 5 lost lives weigh on my conscience so heavily? I don’t think so. I didn’t kill them. A run-away trolley killed them.

    If a loved one is in peril I’m vested again.

    The point is I don’t think most people would be trying to optimize the outcome in terms of human life. They’d be trying to optimize the outcome in terms of their own lives.

  • richard silliker

    Stupid questions deserve stupid answers.

    Interestingly no one offered to jump.

    • +1

    • MattC

      When thinking about the trolley problem, it’s usually assume that jumping isn’t an option for some reason, for example, I’m a very small person so I wouldn’t deflect the trolley enough to save the five people, while the guy on the bridge next to me is very large and would deflect the trolley.

      This assumption may seem a little silly and contrived, but the point is that it makes the theoretical problem harder, not easier: we take it for granted that we should sacrifice ourselves to save others, but sacrificing someone else is dicier.

      Also I’m curious why you think the trolley problem is stupid.

      • Richard Silliker

        The questions asked are trick questions.

        There is no such thing as intention so it is impossible to say what you would do under the circumstances.

  • I lean towards Richard’s “stupid questions” assessment. In analyzing these hypotheticals, I hope most of the participants have very strong anti-murder biases. So when the framing starts to get suspiciously absurd (“so you’re saying that pushing someone in front of a runaway trolley will stop the trolley? How does that even work?”) then you start to fight our ability to model the trade-off.

    In other words, it’s easy to imagine the murder part, and it’s viscerally repellent. It’s hard to imagine the body-stops-tram part, so it becomes absurd (and not obviously worth the trade). In the real world, even among the relatively rare circumstances of human sacrifice saving lives, it tends to be a voluntary sacrifice (“I am going out. I may be some time”) or a situation where all the participants are manifestly imperiled, and not randomly, involuntarily recruited into a new circumstance.

    • Lord

      Yes. Why are those in danger oblivious to it? Why aren’t they responsible for their own safety? Why is there only one possible action? Why is my action determinative of the outcome? Why is it that I happen to know all this in advance and can completely predict the results of my own action? Unrealistic scenarios lead to unrealistic responses.

  • Sensui

    Framing the problem in terms of “do” or “do not” is suspitous to me, because they tend to freeze the question, ingoring important evidences who show in the process of conceptualization.

  • Gulliver

    While I agree the question itself is absurd – and not at all new – it was never meant, I suspect, to be a model for real life events. It was intended as an illustrative way of asking whether it’s more important not to murder, or to save lives, and would you murder to save lives regardless. One could just ask that question, but the cartoonish imagery is more likely to elicit an emotional response, whereas the abstract question is less visceral and makes it easier for most responders to apply dispassionate ethical reasoning.

    Unless one can say circumstances never present a person with the dilemma of murdering or saving lives, the underlying question is not stupid, even though the framing is ridiculous.

  • rationalist

    A realistic example is the use of the atom bombs against Japan in WWII. The bomb killed 0.1 million people to save ~10 million in the American invasion of Kyushu and the Russian invasion of Hokkaido which would probably have followed. The Japanese plans for repelling an invasion included using the whole civilian population in a Banzai charge. I recently saw videos of Japanese schoolgirls being trained to attack American invaders with bamboo sticks.

  • David C

    I find it difficult to square this post:

    “While simple rules create unfortunate incentives in specific cases, they are overall easier to monitor and enforce.”

    with this post:
    “So I thought it might be worth pointing out how little of our legal variance is explained by difficulty of enforcement.”

  • Gulliver

    @ Ken

    It can also be about self control. Not masterbating is about discipline.

    No, it’s about irrational shame. Exercising, eating healthy, working hard, not cheating, maintaining focus and other beneficial habits are about self-discipline.

    Not that I share daedalus2u’s cynicism. He right on the second count, that some authorities take advantage of irrational cultural mores. But he’s wrong on the first account about authority being the root cause of them. Never multiply conspiracies beyond necessity when good old human nature can explain something.

    Also, suggesting that the person criticizing abuse of authority would themselves be tempted to do the same is a truly idiotic excuse for the abuse itself.

    • bhw

      Of course, just by looking at the issue of masturbation on its own, one can very easily realize that, in the end, masturbation does not any significant amount of harm. The fact that the current social mores trend, which favors looser morality on sex-related subjects, favors your conclusion even more.

      However, do not unilaterally declare it irrational, as if everyone before the modern era is brain dead for not realizing this. Not unless you are willing to accept that practically all of modern social interaction is irrational. I mean, since one is willing to overthrow definitions, such that masturbation should be seen as normal as eating good food (why not), why should people not masturbate or have sex in public or everywhere? To disallow this activity in any place should be a violation of civil right. Why do people wear clothes at all, when it is not to keep warm? Some people are ugly? Well, the obvious next argument is that “when did people being ugly become a legitimate reason to suppress their freedoms”. I am sure there are lots of other norms that you can overthrow, by using the same amount of effort at overriding existing intuition of what is acceptable.

      Some rules and morals are there as is. And I am unconvinced how society is so much better without a healthy bias against masturbation.

      Also, if I assume too much of your point of view or made your view much more extreme than you meant, I am sorry. In that case, you should pretend this comment is not directed towards you, but to people even deeper on your end of the spectrum.

    • guest

      “Of course, just by looking at the issue of masturbation on its own, one can very easily realize that, in the end, masturbation does not any significant amount of harm.”

      You are correct that masturbation is not harmful persay. However, as with any potentially compulsive habit, care is called for when taking part in it. Many folks find that periodically abstaining from masturbation gives them an energy boost and increases their overall enjoyment from this and other sexual practices. For similar reasons, people will find it helpful to moderate their use of sexual images and videos. This is an exercise in self-discipline to some extent, not unlike giving up smoking, keeping good eating habits and working out regularly.

  • Doug S.

    Masturbation, specifically, was once believed to be hazardous to one’s health…

  • Evan

    While morality may be in general pro-social, it is not in every specific case. So there are times when you must choose between being moral, and being helpful.

    This is an odd-sounding statement to me. I generally think that being helpful is a subsection of being moral. So saying “there are times when you must choose between being moral, and being helpful” is like saying “there are times when you must choose between between driving an automobile and driving a car” or “there are times when you must choose between having an offspring and having a son.”

    I think you are using the term “morality” when you really mean “moral codes.” Moral codes are sets of rules developed to save computation time when trying to act morally. Rather than spend lots of time trying to weigh a course of action someone with a moral code simply follows a set of rules that have been demonstrated to, on average, produce positive results. Doing this is usually good, prosocial, helpful, moral, and so on because it means that you aren’t locked in indecision when moral choices come your way because you don’t have time to weigh your options. It’s also a good guard against corruption, a clear unambiguous code makes it harder to convince yourself you’re behaving morally when you’re not.

    The trolly problem is one particular rare instance where following a normal moral code has obvious bad consequences that can be seen very easily with very little necessary computation. People naturally feel uncomfortable, since their moral code normally produces good results, it feels wrong to break it.

    The person who acts to stop the trolly is being moral. They’re just basing their moral judgement on a cost-benefit analysis instead of a set of rules. Normally this is a bad idea, it usually takes too long and is too open to corruption. But in this rare freak event it produces better consequences than following the rules. And producing good consequences is what being moral is all about.

  • “producing good consequences is what being moral is all about.”

    Yes, and punishing bad consequences or rule breaking is what being in authority is all about. The person who pushes the one to save the 5 will probably be prosecuted for murder.

    Then the trade-off is saving five lives for one dead and one in prison for life.

    On the other hand, depending on who owns stock in the trolley company, one death by murder by a non-trolley company employee would reduce trolley company liability over 5 deaths, perhaps to zero.

    On the other hand, if those 5 are trolley company employees, their deaths would be investigated by OSHA and the company fined and new work rules implemented which would prevent future deaths. Maybe the CEO would even go to jail for having such dangerous work practices. They are on the job, so the company liability is limited by workman’s comp. But the trolley company does have deep pockets, so the widows and orphans left behind by the dead trolley workers might get some compensation.

    But then there are the trolley company lawyers, who would fight any new regulations designed to prevent future deaths and would also seek to limit and block any next-of-kin compensation.

    It seems pretty clear that the most moral position would be to empower OSHA to act to ensure workplace safety before there are trolley accidents. That amounts to pushing a big bundle of the trolley company’s money off the bridge to stop the trolley. In that case no one need die, but the trolley company doesn’t make as much profit.