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.