If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember my old posts on moral psychology (I’m too lazy to look them up and link them, right now, but if you really want to find them, I’ll do it). Well, after I discussed that research with a couple other psychologists who, it turns out, are as dissatisfied with it as I am, we decided to throw our hats into the moral psychology ring. Now, as people who study representation for a living, we all agree that the important part of moral decision making is in how people represent moral situations, so that’s how we’re approaching it. We’ve got some definite ideas about certain aspects of representation, but I don’t want to get into that now. If you’re really curious, drop me an email, and we can talk about it.
Our first idea was to use the traditional moral dilemmas, because they’re what most people use in research on adult moral judgment these days. But then we remembered that we don’t like their research, and a big part of why we don’t like it is because the moral dilemmas suck. In case you don’t know what the traditional moral dilemmas are, I’ll give them to you real quick. There are two of them, and most studies involve contrasting people’s decisions on the two. The first is the trolley problem:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?
I stole that wording from the Wikipedia entry on the trolley problem, but that’s basically the one that most researchers use. When presented with this problem, most people say yes, you should flip the switch. It’s an OK problem, even though it’s outlandish. I mean, how many of us really have any idea how to switch a train’s course (unless we suddenly find ourselves in the Old West, and can use our knowledge of train tracks from westerns), or could ever imagine being in a position to switch a train’s course? Hold your hands high, so that I can count them. None? OK.
The second moral dilemma is the footbridge problem (again from the Wikipedia page):
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Most people say no, you shouldn’t proceed. Philosophers and psychologists draw all sorts of conclusions from this, when they contrast it with people’s answers to the trolley problem, but we don’t think they should. I mean, the footbridge problem is pretty damn silly. Who really believes that throwing a person in front of a train, regardless of how heavy that person is, is going to stop it? Cars don’t stop trains! But even if we set aside the absurdity of the problem itself, it’s simply not alignable with the trolley problem. For example, if we suspend disbelief for a moment, and run with the assumption that a large person really can stop the train, large people would be faced with a separate dilemma: instead of throwing this guy next to them onto the tracks, shouldn’t they throw themselves onto the tracks? You don’t get any purely altruistic options in the trolley problem, but the footbridge problem, if people can get past its physical impossibility, definitely has one.
So we threw out the idea of using these moral dilemmas altogether. Then there’s another problem with traditional moral dilemmas, almost all of which are drawn from recent analytic philosophy. They’re all extreme situations (sacrificing one life for many, or one life for a large sum of money, to take a couple examples), which may make it difficult for participants to really place themselves in the situation. This makes the ecological validity of any conclusions drawn from research with these problems suspect (at best). So, we’re trying to find more mundane situations that involve moral dilemmas, that are alignable (in the sense that the differences between the two involve relations that are present in both — I’ll give you an example in a moment), and that induce people to make utilitarian or “principled” judgments in one case (as in the trolley problem, where people sacrifice one person to save five), but not in the other (as in people not sacrificing the one guy in the footbridge problem, and thus letting the five die).
As I’ve talked about these problems, I’ve become more impressed with two of Joshua Knobe’s scenarios (they’re not moral dilemmas), because they are perfectly alignable. In case you don’t know Knobe’s work, here are two of his scenarios:
Scenario 1: The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’
The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’
They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.
Scenario 2: The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.’
The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’
They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.
Notice how the only difference between the two is whether the outcome is good or bad? In other words, the difference is on a dimension (or in a relation) that is common to both scenarios. They’re perfectly alignable, which makes them easy to contrast. That’s the sort of alignability we need.
Anyway, I’ve told you all of this because we’re stuck. We’re having trouble coming up with relatively mundane moral dilemmas (ones that people might actually face once or twice n their lives, or at least believe that they could possibly face them one day) that have the features I mentioned above. So I’m looking for help. You folks are creative. Maybe you can come up with some ideas.