The Frontal Cortex

Mayan Morality

Here’s a moral scenario:

A man is sitting near the side of the road when he sees a truck speeding along. It is headed towards a group of five men, who do not hear or see it, and if nothing appears in the road, it will certainly hit and kill them. Across the road is another man sitting in front of his house. If the man who is sitting by the road calls out to the man by his house and says ‘come here,’ the man will walk into the road in the path of the truck, be killed, and stop it from continuing on toward the five, saving them. If the man sitting by the road says nothing, the truck will travel on and kill the five. The man decides to call out so the one man is killed and the five men are saved.

Did the man do something wrong? Take a second and rate his behavior on a five point scale, with 1 being “morally impermissible” and 5 being “morally virtuous”.

Here’s another scenario:

A man is sitting near the side of the road when he sees a truck speeding along. It is headed towards a group of five men, who do not hear or see it, and if nothing appears in the road, it will certainly hit and kill them. Across the road is another man about to walk onto the road. If he walks onto the road, the truck will certainly hit and kill him, but if it does, it will stop and not continue and the other five will not be hurt. If the man who is sitting by the road calls out to the man about to cross the road and says ‘look out!,’ the man will not walk into the road in the path of the truck, and will be safe. But the truck will continue on toward the five, killing them. If the man sitting by the road says nothing, the truck will travel on and kill the man crossing the road. The man decides not to call out, so the one man is killed and the five men are saved.

Once again, let’s judge the man on that five point scale.

The vast majority of people believe that harm (the death of one man) caused by an action (calling out “come here”) is more morally fraught than harm caused by omission (not calling out), even when the harm is done for the greater good (saving five lives). As a result, we believe that the man in the first scenario is more culpable than the man who remained silent. And this bias doesn’t just exist in convoluted hypotheticals. For instance, we might think it’s wrong for a doctor to kill a terminally ill patient with a lethal dose of a painkiller, but we’re much more forgiving when a patient dies because a medication has been withheld. The first setup is a crime, the second one is a dignified death.

Marc Hauser is a psychologist at Harvard who has done some very influential work examining our moral instincts, that grammar of ethical behavior built into our social primate brain. (Hauser argues that our innate morality is roughly analogous to our innate capacity for grammatical language, as outlined by Chomsky, et. al.) In a new paper, Hauser and Linda Abarbanell gave the moral scenarios described above to a rural Mayan population. Interestingly, the rural Mayans did not recognize a moral difference between harm caused by action and harm caused by omission. (This is unlikely to be a translation problem, as a population of urban Mayans did perceive a moral difference.) While the rural Mayans did see “the man” in the scenarios as more causally responsible, they didn’t see him as more deserving of moral blame.

What makes this experiment important is that it helps clarify the innateness of our morality. While the rural Mayans did recognize some canonical moral distinctions – they saw harm caused deliberately as more forbidden than harm caused as a side-effect, even when the harm was done for the greater good – the omission bias appears to be influenced by culture. As the scientists note, “This research may suggest that some psychological distinctions are moral absolutes, true in all cultures, whereas others may be more plastic, relative to a culture’s social dynamics, mating behaviour and belief systems.”

Why might the Mayans not recognize the distinction between omission and action? The scientists speculate that the effect is caused by the “highly intertwined” nature of rural Mayan society, in which everybody knows everybody else. They point to an earlier experiment to support this relationship between social intimacy and moral judgements of omission:

Haidt and Baron (1996), using scenarios similar to the ones we used here, found that manipulating social dimen- sions such as the proximity between characters, affected participants’ moral judgments regarding actions and omis- sions. For example, while US college students judged harmful actions to be worse than harmful omissions, this difference diminished when the omission resulted in harm to a close friend or kin as opposed to a stranger. That is, the failure to prevent harm (an omission) from occurring to a close relation was judged similarly to committing a harmful act.

In other words, it’s permissible to let someone else die by doing nothing, except when that someone else is someone we know.

Finally, Hauser and colleagues also speculate that the absence of omission bias is rooted in Mayan cultural practices, such as witchcraft, which often refuse to acknowledge a distinction between intention and action.

The accusation that someone is an ak-chamel, literally giver of sickness, are not uncommon [among rural Mayans], and the services of traditional healers who specialize in diagnosing and curing such illnesses are still sometimes sought, often alongside allopathic or Western remedies. These healers, known as pik’-k’ab in Tseltal (pulseadores or pulse readers), question the patient about his or her interpersonal history, especially any conflicts or misgivings, and then listen to the patient’s pulse for any signs while reciting specific names. These interrogations may reveal a causal chain where even simple offenses, including the omission to act in the expected or appropriate way, may be believed to have resulted in a retributional illness. These highly personal beliefs may help bind individuals into a kind of social contract where all parties must try to preserve good will among all, while reinforcing the notion that even intentions, be they real, inferred or imagined, may result in harm.

Needless to say, Jesus would have agreed with the rural Mayans.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    March 16, 2010

    The human (or for that matter animal) brain cannot be certain that the real life scenario will play out to a certainty that the five men in the distance will have to die. Unless you can convince this brain of that certainty beforehand as an omnipotent interloper. Which is what these experimenters play at being. So it’s likely that, rural or urban, in the event of the actual situation, the decision this game tells us to anticipate, won’t be made for the same reasons or purposes that we (or any Mayans involved) expected it would.

  2. #2 pjc
    March 16, 2010

    If you can call out to the guy across the road and he has time to walk halfway towards you before the truck gets there, why the hell wouldn’t you just jump up and down screaming “TRUCK!!!” until everyone got the message? And how do you know the truck isn’t about to stop of its own accord – according to the scenario there must be least 5 seconds to go before the potential impact?

    It can’t be beyond the wit of man to construct more plausible moral dilemmas than those presented here. These two are so stupid I’d be amazed if that hadn’t influenced the results.

  3. #3 Jon
    March 16, 2010

    I was surprised at the rationale for why the man in the 1st scenario was considered less virtuous than in the second.

    I rated him lower in the 1st because he caused the death of another rather than simply walk out in the road and sacrifice himself.

  4. #4 Garlin Gilchrist II
    March 16, 2010

    This article made me think about the health care reform debate. Many who obstruct reform from the conservative point of view have shown themselves less sensitive to the suffering of people they aren’t connected to. That follows from George Lakoff‘s characterization of conservative ideology built upon direct causation (as opposed to the indirect/systemic causation lens that general governs progressive thinking).

  5. #5 debbie
    March 16, 2010

    I think the first two comments missed the point of your exercise…..

  6. #6 D.Nguyen
    March 16, 2010

    This is a very intriguing article. I was astounded by the results. I rated both scenarios with the same score because the man could have done something in both cases to save all of them, but he decided not to. Therefore, he is morally impressible.

  7. #7 Michael F. Martin
    March 16, 2010

    A better quote for Jesus in this context might be from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where he expounds on the law of Moses:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expounding_of_the_Law

  8. #8 Bobj
    March 16, 2010

    I’m going to quote this for emphasis because apparently some of you didnt see it the first time:

    If you can call out to the guy across the road and he has time to walk halfway towards you before the truck gets there, why the hell wouldn't you just jump up and down screaming "TRUCK!!!" until everyone got the message? And how do you know the truck isn't about to stop of its own accord - according to the scenario there must be least 5 seconds to go before the potential impact?

    It can't be beyond the wit of man to construct more plausible moral dilemmas than those presented here. These two are so stupid I'd be amazed if that hadn't influenced the results.

    Or if you must have this particular scenario, the obviously moral thing to is for the man by the side of the road to jump in front of the truck himself,

  9. #9 Nick
    March 17, 2010

    In the real world dilemmas like this are iterated. So the active version is worse because it subverts trust. You may save four lives (hard to tell at the time), but you’re definitely trashing the social fabric. Nobody wants to live in a world where strangers feel free to make life and death decisions based on “good intentions”. What the respondents are saying is that preserving society is more important than four anonymous lives.

    I can’t speak for the Mayans and I’m not sure the researchers can either. Hopefully they have more to back up their speculations than this one study.

  10. #10 G.D.
    March 17, 2010

    This is a famous moral test case (google “trolley problem” or “trolley case”). Interestingly – and readers should be aware of that – how you react to the second case depends to a surprisingly large degree on the order in which the test cases are presented to the you (I suppose the researchers have accounted for that); more precisely, how you judge the first case seems relatively stable, but how you judge the second depends on whether you got it presented to you first or second. That said, even among ordinary Americans a large percentage of respondents judge that the cases are the same regardless of the order (whether both are impermissible or both are permissible or both are obligatory). The data are very noisy and you need a pretty large sample to draw any interesting conclusions.

  11. #11 G.D.
    March 17, 2010

    bobj: “the obviously moral thing to is for the man by the side of the road to jump in front of the truck himself”

    This suggests another interesting moral question. Can you explain why it is, all else being equal, morally better to sacrifice your own life rather than someone else’s in a case like this? The outcome would presumably be the same, objectively speaking (it is not really meant as a trick question – it isn’t really obvious to which degree the ‘nobility of self-sacrifice’ sentiment is culturally contingent, an expression of some group cohesion mechanism (in some way or other) or can be given any kind of purely moral justification).

  12. #12 Michael Mattioli
    March 17, 2010

    This post summoned vivid memories of my first year as a law student. On my first day in Criminal Law class, my professor described a memorable and harrowing depiction of the action/omission divide:

    During wartime, you find yourself hiding in the basement of a warehouse along with your fellow villagers. Overhead, you hear the footfalls of enemy soldiers, who have orders to kill anyone they find. In your arms, you are holding your newborn baby — your newborn baby with a sniffle. At any moment, your baby could cough. If that happens, enemy soldiers will be be alerted, and all of your fellow villagers will be killed.

    So, you’re faced with an unthinkable choice: either do nothing, thus sentencing your village to certain death, or smother your own newborn child. It’s an unthinkable choice, and I wonder how the rural Mayans you discuss might think about it.

    Back in my American criminal law class, opinions were divided along a near 50/50 split. This led to a fascinating class discussion about why the American legal system generally doesn’t punish omissions. Does the “freedom” we value in the US include the freedom to do nothing? Should it?

  13. #13 Thaddaeus Moody
    March 17, 2010

    When I read this article my mind wanted to rebel and make a third choice, though I recognized that it invalidates the exercise. I felt very strongly that both choices were lacking. The third option suggested by some of stepping in front of the truck in self sacrafice has more appeal in the abstract but adding a realistic context can change that for me very quickly. For example if the person by the road is my four year old son will I call out and sacrafice him? Will I step out myself and curse him to a lifetime of memories of the violent death of his father? If the group is school children is the choice easier than if they are octagenarians or reality TV stars or lawyers? What would I do if my son were in the group of five? It seems that all of these emotional calculations would be instantly processed in the background if one were in the moment then endlessly second guessed afterwards. It makes me want to reread Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Thanks for the interesting article. It made me think.

  14. #14 L. Pedro Machado
    March 17, 2010

    I agree with rural Mayans. :) I rate the man’s behavior with 1 in both scenarios. Not doing X on purpose is morally the same as doing the opposite of X.

    Every human life is worth the same, and ‘n’ lives are worth one life.

    Maybe people pardon the man’s behavior in the second scenario because they don’t really know his intentions. When one has doubts, one does nothing…

  15. #15 Ann
    March 17, 2010

    As Jon said, in this scenario there would be the option of going into the path of the truck himself.

    The version I have read about before, the example was of a train and a man who was able to divert the train by the switch – away from killing five men and to just killing one.

    In that scenario it seems obvious that you do whatever causes the least harm.

    However, it does seem wrong to me to deliberately call a man into the path of a truck.

    I do think there is something about the idea that we are more culpable if something goes wrong when we take action rather than when we do nothing – I think with the problem with vaccine denialism for instance, many people are more worried that something they do will cause harm, rather than the possibility that inaction will cause harm.

  16. #16 Paul
    March 17, 2010

    I’m reminded of the single game prisoner’s dilemma, where people consistently act ‘irrationally’ because we’re not used to situations where we’ll never interact with the other player again. This scenario is so unlike any we’d encounter in the real world, that I wouldn’t expect us to have developed a strong moral sense for it.

    In defense of omission being morally superior: By actively interfering you’ve killed someone smart enough not to stand in the road with their fingers in their ears and their back to traffic. If one group takes a risk, shouldn’t they be the ones to face the penalty, not a smaller group of innocent bystanders?

    Similarly, from a social standpoint, what if you do trick someone to walk in front of the truck? If questioned, the group of 5 would likely say “oh, we were watching, we would’ve gotten out of the way.” Having prevented their death, there’s now no evidence they would have definitely died. So maybe you’re a hero, but maybe you’re a murderer. And if we accept that killing someone because it might save more lives is morally just, we now have to figure out how to differentiate between situations where the person was wrong and situations where the person used this as an excuse to kill.

    You could rewrite the scenario to avoid these problems, say perhaps the group of five are tied down in the road. But that’s such an implausible scenario I don’t see why we as a species would develop strong moral preferences: we’re more likely to heuristically prefer harm-by-omission and not differentiate much more except in the extremes.

  17. #17 Alan
    March 17, 2010

    This is a fascinating study. Off hand, a few questions come to mind:

    1. The Maya in the study are situated in a state of Mexico. Have the researchers considered or undertaken to replicate their findings in another Maya community in, say, Guatemala? (Take the example of the Tarahumara natives who live on both sides of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Their tribal ancestry is the same, but their contemporary worldviews are probably different–I’m not qualified to say.)

    2. Does recent scholarship of classical Mayan civilisation have any context, support, or puzzles to add to findings of this study?

    3. How would this study’s findings match up, if at all, with the moral instincts of people living in, say, Papua New Guinea?

    Jonah makes the observation that Jesus of Nazareth would have found his views in sync with those of the rural Maya. There have been speculations concerning the prevalence of pantheism in forest-dwelling tribes versus the monotheism that took hold in desert tribes. The near east/middle east provides plenty of desert topography, whereas the Maya have been living in jungles. I’m not sure there’s a point here, except to say that Jesus’ world views obviously grew out of the context of the monotheistic desert civilisations of the near east/middle east desert and its nomadic cultures. Therefore, if his intuitions as articulated in the gospel literature, run in parallel to those of isolated rural forest-dwelling Mayans, then might this parallel count as an anecdotal datum in support of the universality of certain moral instincts?

  18. #18 abb3w
    March 17, 2010

    In other words, it’s permissible to let someone else die by doing nothing, except when that someone else is someone we know.

    In other words, prescriptive assessments (morality) vary with degree that INGROUP is recognized. See Haidt.

  19. #19 royniles
    March 17, 2010

    There IS a universality of moral instincts, which essentially involves the need to do what you sense the culture you belong to will trust you to do in the particular situation. And where whatever you decide will always be subject to second guessing.

  20. #20 WForward
    March 17, 2010

    The trolley variant is the first question posed to the students in Michael Sandel’s excellent (and now free online) “Justice: what’s the right thing to do?” series (justiceharvard.org).

  21. #21 Peta-de-Aztlan
    March 17, 2010

    To be wise is to also be compassionate as they are intertwined principles. Do the most good and the least harm.

  22. #22 debbie
    March 18, 2010

    The point of the excercise was a comparison of two scenarios, not a discussion of all options. The specifics here mattered; they were everything; they limited possibilities. Just as our world may not be the best of all “possible moral worlds, according to our limited vision” but may be the only possible world.

  23. #23 Sonia
    March 21, 2010

    Would it perhaps be an option to throw an object onto the road where the truck is speeding along in order to prevent the loss of lives? That was my thought after reading the first scenario…also valid for the second scenario.

  24. #24 Sonia
    March 21, 2010

    Or perhaps it’s not only a matter of morality, but also a matter of real good timing, since for one to realize the sequence of events – the truck hitting 1 man being the cause for not hitting the 5 men – it would take more time than maybe the truck would take to catch the 5 men ! :(

  25. #25 Nancy
    March 22, 2010

    Posts 4 & 18:
    Replace the supercilious “In-group” with “community” and see where that gets you. Anyone considered that “community”
    too is an innate moral category?

    Here’s a completely different perspective: how moral was it, in the name of economic development, to introduce trucks (speed, efficiency, volume) into a land that does not yet have sidewalks?
    Nancy
    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

  26. #26 Julie
    March 22, 2010

    I think it is brilliant that you mentioned Jesus at the end of this article, because I feel that we get our morality from the Divine Messengers, such as Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Baha’u’llah, etc. Our moral compass comes from Them, whether we know it or not. When These sanctified Beings appear in the world, a vibration is released and every atom feels its energetic influence. So, I would say, the results of this type of study could also be researched based on the spirituality of the people being asked about their moral choices. The more we are turned towards the Sun, the more will we reflect its Light.

  27. #27 Mark O'Halloran
    March 22, 2010

    What if the truck driver knew the five men were terrorists on their way to commit an atrocity against a great many more people? Part of what is morally objectionable in the second scenario is that the observer, as an outsider to the situation and therefore without personal risk, has taken it upon himself to make decisions for other people he knows nothing about and who have given him no authority over themselves. It cannot be morally acceptable to lure a person to his death whatever the supposed greater good. So the only acceptable course in the second scenario is for the observer either to stay out of it or get involved by running into the road and trying to flag down the truck (even at the risk of being killed himself).

  28. #28 Mike M
    April 5, 2010

    I see people have touched upon monotheism and pantheism. I wonder if the action vs. omission moral difference is a result of many people to believe that a higher force (God, The Gods, Fate) is in control. Inaction simply leads to the Will being played out, whereas action might be seen as having more effect and more moral weight. I’m sure that we in Judeo-Christian Western society have a sense that events that we cannot control are part of God’s will – or left up to Fate. I also think we blur the line between CANNOT control and DO NOT control, such that this may explain the moral difference between action/omission. In scenario 2, it can easily be seen as the single man’s “time to die.” I wonder if the Mayan belief structure is crucially different in this aspect.

  29. #29 porno
    September 21, 2011

    Wonderful post, I agree completely and this does help put the fuss over Interenet tradeoffs into perspective. As others noted, city driving can be even worse, and some of us spend hours on the road unde

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