TRC #248 is ready for your listening pleasure. Pat takes a look at some common myths about the “land down under,” Darren confuses the panel with some moral thought experiments and Adam takes a look at why there are mirrors in elevators.
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Fosters is not Australia’s beer
Dropbears: Museum of Australia
The Reality Check #94: Abiogenic Oil + Homosexuality and Evolution + Koala Bears
Moral Thought Experiments
Darren’s Fundraising Initiative (Against Malaria Foundation)
I’m just listening to your discussion of helping the guy with the injured leg vs helping kids via charity drives. I think the comment made by Pat was brushed off too quickly as the frequency is the key difference in my mind. You may only come across a guy bleeding profusely asking for help once in your lifetime, so that’s $5,000 across an entire lifetime. If you answered every plea for financial aid from charities you could easily be out $5,000 in a couple of months (think of all the adverts on buses, billboards, newspapers, TV, direct mailings, etc).
This is the argument from futility to some extent, but it’s also the argument from limited resources. I cannot afford to give to everyone who asks without going broke. The guy with the leg is in front of me and is asking a one-off request. The charity asking for help isn’t going to say ‘thanks for the $100’ and leave you alone, they’ll say ‘seeing as you gave $100 this month, can you give $100 next month and the month after that’ which is a very different proposition. It may be extrapolating from the question but I think that this is where a lot of the hesitation comes from.
Love the show, thanks for another really interesting episode 🙂
In regards to your moral thought experiment segment; what a good subject! Though I have always had a problem with the trolly experiment. It usually involves a way to save five people on the track vs one on the track, and then contrast this with five on he track and one in some other location or instance. You used another instance where a healthy person is killed for organs to save five people, however there is another version with less problems and variables. A man is standing with you on a bridge over the tracks and by pushing him off you can save the five further down the track. While this has less variables, and was even used in a psycological study involving fMRI, it still has enough problems as to make it an unsuitable comparison for the experiment.
First, the man next to you on the tracks has not placed himself in a dangerous situation in which death is a commonly understood side effect as the sacrificial person on the track has in the first instance. Secondly, being that you are also in the same location and sercumstances as the other man on the bridge(or the man in the hospital) and so could through yourself over the bridge just as easily. This brings duty and bravery into the moral equation which can change participants answers. Thirdly, while the question states that throughing the man over(or harvesting the organs) will save five lives, in reality it is implosable that puting another body in the way of the train will stop it from hittingore bodies down the track(or that organic transplant recipients will surviv for long or if at all). Though the terms of the thought experiment exclude these I think the realistic perception of the situations is at least the shallow subcontious of the participant. Moral thought experiments are wonderful tools and good fun I just wish they generally were constructed more carefully.
Thanks for the comment. You are correct that it appears that the ‘Injured leg man’ is a one-off and the charitable requests will keep coming, but if we are going to assume that and be consistent, why has no one (I’ve ever said it to) say, “Okay, I will donate 5000 dollars to charity and that’s it” ?
Additionally, whether it is the ‘right thing to do’ is what matters, not if you will be asked to provide more in the future.* If the issue is truly one of limited resources (and not psychological futility) then it seems it would be logical to give until your resources are depleted (IF you were still trying to be fully morally consistent – a near impossibility).
You are most welcome and we hope you keep enjoying! 🙂
*I’m currently skipping the more complicated variables of potentially larger tragedies in the future for which we must put aside resources to address. As well, there is the factor of to what degree we owe a moral obligation to future generations.
I think it’s a great subject, too! 🙂
You are correct that there are many variations on that thought experiment that I didn’t have time to go into. As you said, there is typically the ‘Fat Man’ case where you push a large man off a bridge. This requires actually touching another person and people find this very hard to do. The more one is personally engaged or has to physically do harm, the less ‘moral’ it seems to them.
If you are interested in numerous variations on these thought experiments I would recommend the book “Moral Minds” by M. Hauser or the one I mentioned in the show “Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusions of Innocence” by P. Unger.
I think you’ll see that with all of those, the thought experiment is constructed in enough different ways as to try to address different variables. (although one could always debate their plausibility).
Keep listening! 🙂
This was a very interesting show; I always think the podcast is most interesting when you guys disagree with each other!
I have to say, though, that I think this sort of thought experiment is of limited use, especially if one is trying to examine morality from the perspective of rationality. The problem is that we are told the outcomes BEFORE we are asked to make the decision. If we are concerned with identifying the logical solution to a problem, then the thought experiment should leave the outcome out. Logical decisions (and I would argue moral decisions are usually one and the same) are based on knowledge at the time the decision was made. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that the woman on the trolley should put the trolley on the track with one person. It seems more likely to me that one person might be able to avoid the trolley than all five people. Since the moral goal is (presumably) to avoid loss of life, the rational thing is to maximize the chances of avoiding it. This only works if we don’t know what will happen.
Being told the outcome first is usually a pointless distraction. How often do we know the outcome before we make a decision?
Thanks guys, keep up the great work!
Thanks Darren, I’ll have to find that book. Here is an abstract of the study I was talking about:
Sorry, Darren, I had to come back and piont something out about your reply. That is it actually serves as a good example of the point sidestepping you talked about in your segment. I brought up three differences in the thought experiments that make them less than ideal for comparative analysis and you talked about one completely different(yet most often cited) difference. Your reply actually drove home your point for me and I do catch myself doing this philosophical sidestep often. Hopefully I can be more aware of it in the future:)
Thanks for the comment. You are correct we are told before hand which is unlike real life, but in real life we just use probability estimates to make decisions (some of which are extraordinarily high, like me expecting black marks to come on the screen when I press buttons on a key board). I think there is still great utility because even when we know the outcomes, and even when we have time to think, it is still difficult for us to reason consistently.
Thad, you are right in the three things you mentioned. Perhaps I didn’t address each of them because there are variations on the trolley problem that solve all of them (i.e., you can do it so all potential victims are equally innocent; you can make it so sacrificing yourself wouldn’t work or be sufficient, etc.).
Interesting! I understand you have me that book title, and I will look it up and hopefully acquire it when I can, but could you be bothered to post the version that eliminates the inequality of innosance between the man on the bridge and the people on the tracks?
Just wanted to say a big thank you for the moral thought experiment segment. It’s been a while where the conversation amongst the hosts over a topic became edgy, showing how instantly invested we humans become in issues of morality, and defending our reputations when we are (or perceive we are) being accused of doing something immoral.
I think this was the most telling aspect of the discussion, highlighting how human moral judgments are deeply wired in our brains and they are almost instant, completely bypassing the higher functions of reasoned balanced arguments. Yet when people are asked to supply reasons for moral judgments there is almost a universal human reaction of irritation with the usual answer being “Because it feels right dammit” or “stop being a smart ass”
Here is my potential explanation (of which I’m sure there are many) on why most people choose to help the “broken-leg guy” instead of the “Charity kids” Basically I think it comes down to reputation.
If you do not help the “broken-leg guy” and someone else does help him, he might damage your reputation by telling everyone else that you did not help him. From an evolutionary point of view this incurs a high cost, as when you need help you might not get any help.
When it comes to the “charity kids”, you receive a mass anonymous appeal for help, but no one is going to know whether or not you helped. Of course people don’t consciously think like this, it’s all done by the wiring in the brain that has been crafted over millions of years.
I know some people might find this explanation a bit offensive, but I am partial to the explanation that humans help other humans because it is in their interest to do so, some people find this cynical thinking, but I wonder where did this idea come from that the most beneficial help is help given selflessly (but that’s another topic).
Anyway to summarise.
People respond to the “broken-leg guy” because such an event occurred in our evolutionary past, and the wiring is their to respond by helping.
People ignore the “charity kids” because such an event did not occur in our evolutionary past, and the wiring simply isn’t there to respond by helping.
I have asperger so it is a bit difficult to marshall my thoughts, but I hope this makes sense and adds something to the fascinating topic.
Darren your segments require a lot of effort to listen to, but it is one hell of a an adventure following your train of thought, I enjoy them immensely. I think we often forget what hard work is required to train the brain to be logical and consistent. Too often skeptical thinking is reduced to just being cool and calling religious people stupid, but this is the hipster element in Skeptical society we should all guard against.
Sorry for waffling on, but it’s been a while since a segment got me so excited and riled up. Keep up the great work Skeptics
P.S I emailed Adam asking if you (Darren) could do a segment on the history of Skeptical thought, just to give the listeners out there an idea of what a long hard battle it’s been against superstition, and bad reasoning. If you get the chance I think it owuld be a really good segment (You can add it to the list of all the other requests 🙂
I wanted to leave this in a voice message, but I can’t seem to get my microphone working…
Here’s a thought experiment for Darren and the panel:
Inspired by Darren’s segments on morality, Dave decides to raise money for a worthy charity. Since he has taken up biking to work, he very rarely uses his car and it sits unused in his driveway. He puts it up for sale and is able to get $5,000, a sum which he knows will save many lives when donated to charity.
While driving the car to the home of the new owner, Dave sees a child on the side of the road who has a serious injury as a result of a bike accident. The child has struck her head and is in obvious need of immediate medical attention. You have no cell phone and cannot call an ambulance. The road is in a quiet, rural area and you do not see any nearby houses or cars passing by.
You can drive the child to a hospital, but she will bleed all over the back seat of the car. The light-coloured upholstery will be badly stained and very difficult to clean, and the car will no longer be in sellable condition. However, if you leave the child and drive to call for help, it seems likely she will die before help arrives.
Do you drive for help to preserve your vehicle so it can be sold to save many lives in Africa, or do you ruin the car to save the little girl?
Great way of bringing the two together! And this might be better than a voice mail as it can be part of a broader discussion when others see it.
While I’m tempted to object about false dichotomies and all that, that’s not really playing by the same rules I set out on the show, so,
1) ASSUMING what you have stated is the only way it can be (and ignoring other effects),
2) AND your goal is to reduce the greatest amount of suffering wherever it may occur,
3) THEN not only should you not help the little girl (i.e., help MANY more children elsewhere) but it would immoral to damage your car so you can’t sell it to then help other people.
What do you think Nick? As well, I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of my fellow co-hosts.
Thanks again for engaging with the show.
Thanks Darren, and I’ll confess that I stole this scenario (with a couple of tweaks) from Paul Gomberg’s paper “The Fallacy of Philanthropy.” He actually put the same scenario to Peter Singer and Singer agreed that the right thing to do was not to save the one child.
I agree that the correct utilitarian decision is to preserve the car and help more people, but I know that 100 times out of 100, I would ruin the car and save the girl. I think it’s interesting that the people who seem most comfortable making utilitarian decisions are sociopaths, and probably gives some insights into why we find the utilitarian choice so morally repugnant.
I think there are a number of factors that would lead most people to reject the utilitarian choice, beyond the sheer immediacy and emotion of the situation in front of them. I think philosophers underestimate the motivation of being a hero in such a dramatic way. If you rescue someone, you are often front page news, win awards for bravery, and your reputation and prestige are significantly boosted. Unless you give on the scale of Bill Gates, people generally don’t give you much more than a pat on the back for donating to Oxfam. On the other hand, I think the potential social stigma in your community for not doing something to help an injured child would be immense. If you became known as someone who let a child die, I could see you losing your job, becoming a social outcast, and even potentially facing physical violence from people looking to deliver some vigilante justice.
In the real world, I think we can assume that if I saved the girl and ruined the car in the process, I could use the publicity to tell the story about how I was going to sell the car to raise money for charity, make an appeal for donations, and likely make far more than $5000.
As I know you have stated on previous occasions, the applicability of thought experiments is limited because the situations are often pretty contrived, which is why I think the other panel members reacted negatively to the scenario. As good critical thinkers, skeptics hate “either-or” choices and are always trying to generate other alternatives. I find being forced to choose between only two options in a scenario like the drowning pond or the trolley problem very frustrating.
Gomberg’s paper is available online (http://www.canadianjournalofphilosophy.com/PDFs/cjp32-1–029-066–Gomberg.pdf) and I’d be interested in your take on it. I think he makes a number of interesting points. I have also found some of the literature on the negative consequences of ongoing humanitarian aid (things like the distortion of local economies and the displacement of potential local workers by more skilled NGO workers) to be quite interesting as well. I do still give to UNICEF, but I don’t think the argument is quite as clear-cut as expressed by Singer or Unger.
And thank you and the panel for bringing up these types of questions. I think your segments on moral philosophy are an interesting skeptical topic and a nice change from the hard science that most other skeptical podcasts stick to.
As an Aussie ex-pat I enjoyed the Aussie myth busting segment – great job!
Thanks Tom! As a non-Aussie, current Pat I’m glad you enjoyed it 😉
Hey guys, love the show. I’ve been thinking about the thought experiment above since I listened to this episode a few weeks ago. I finally put my thoughts into words in my latest blogpost. If you would like to read it, I have posted it here.
In the incest and injured man stories, the puzzle is unfair because in real life, the moral judgment must be made *before* knowing the outcome. In the incest case, a child could be conceived, as no birth control method is 100% effective. If a million couples make the same decision as the one in the puzzle, some misery (e.g. birth defects) is sure to ensue. The fact that a particular couple didn’t conceive is no more exculpatory than the fact that someone managed to drive drunk one night (or a hundred nights) without killing anyone.
In the injured man case, the injured man could be a dangerous person, even someone faking an injury in order to ensnare innocent victims. The almost comical level of detail that the injured man provided about himself and his understanding of his physical condition is a classic indicator of a con (“too many details”).
At my church is it very common for people to tell stories about previously scary-looking people who were helped by a good person, and these stories invariably end up with the scary person being good after all, and we are all urged to be less judgmental. I like to remind people that Elizabeth Smart’s parents made the exact same decision (helping an oddball homeless type) and wound up with a kidnapped daughter. A friend of mine likewise lost his mom to a homicidal homeless man that she tried to help. For this reason I find these preachy, manipulative stories potentially harmful to society, at least insofar as they are didactic, though they are certainly useful for psychological study.
Thanks for your comment. The beauty of these thought experiments is that one can ‘turn all the knobs’ and see which parts are more important than others.
For example in the incest case, you could have them engage in oral sex only. Does this matter to people? Does it provoke more or less disgust?
You are correct the injured man could be conning people. What if the man was a 9 year old child? What if it was actually a conman, but he wasn’t working that con and suffered an accident? What if he was an ex-convict? Etc.
Most of the time, those killed in homicides (in the US and Can) are often involved in gangs of some type or another. There are those horrible cases where a helpful person suffered some horrible fate, but I think those are comparatively rare.
The incest thought experiment is deeply flawed, and the main reason why is brushed off much too easily. Here’s a counterexperiment.
A man from a poor family wishes to ensure that his kid goes to college. Sadly, he has no money for it – but luckily, he comes up with a scheme. He goes to a shady, mafia-run underground casino and bets the life of the kid on the roulette table, putting it on one of the numbers. If he were to lose, the mafia would then kidnap the kid, kill him and sell his organs as spare parts on the black market. With an amazing stroke of luck though he won (the chances of him winning were about 2.5%) and then proceeded to use his winnings to further the kid’s education and then enable him to have a very good and fulfilling life. He never tells the kid where and how he got the money, so there’s no emotional pain caused. The mafia lost money on this arrangement, and that hurt them, which we should agree is a small but good thing. In fact, after that neither he nor anybody else in his family had any contact with any criminal element ever again . Good outcomes all around. So was there anything wrong with his betting his son’s life on an off chance like that?
“No! He could have lost, and then the kid would have died!” – but we know he didn’t, and in fact this enabled him to lead a good life he otherwise couldn’t.
“No! If the kid finds out, that’s emotional trauma!” – but we know he ensured that wouldn’t happen, so what’s the problem?
And so on.
This is the exact kind of counterargumentation I hear against the opposition in the incest thought experiment. Because we know in hindsight that bad outcomes didn’t happen, that somehow improves the perception of the actions involved at the time. It’s not at all unlike the near miss bias from TRC #238, except here that bias is pushed as the thing that should be encouraged.
Also, I’d make the guy pay me the $5k back.
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