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The moral code

18 November 2011

I find it fascinating how throughout history and all across the world, humans have always displayed (if not always acted upon) a universal sense of fairness and justice. I’ve touched on this subject before in the post The fairness syndrome, but today I want to look at the morality of humans in a little more detail.

"How come YOU got the girl? I'M supposed to be the good guy!

We all seem to share not only a global sense of fairness but also rather specific set of moral responses that form a universal human moral code. Let me illustrate this with a few moral dilemmas*.

The tram

Imagine if you will a mad philosopher (is there any other kind, after all?) who has tied five innocent people to railroad track. A heavy tram has been set in motion by the mad man, and is hurling towards the poor victims. You’re standing next to the track close to a switch that would allow you to redirect the tram onto a side track. Being a sound and responsible human being, you reach out to flip the switch to save the group of people further down the track, only to discover that the mad philosopher has tied yet another person to the side track!

So here is the dilemma: should you flip the switch and save the five people even though it would kill the one person tied to the side track? Or should you leave it all be and let the tram crush the five people? Statistically, you probably just answered yes to the first question – it’s better to sacrifice one person and save five than the other way around.

The fat man

Funny. It doesn't LOOK immoral..

Here’s another scenario: the same mad philosopher has tied the same five people (you didn’t kill them in the previous scenario, did you?!) to a track and – again – an out-of-control tram is rushing towards them. This time there is no switch, but you’re standing on a bridge over the track and if you dropped something heavy onto the track it would derail the tram and save the five people. Unfortunately, there is nothing heavy enough on the bridge to throw down, except a rather corpulent man. So, should you push the fat man over the railings of the bridge and onto the tracks? It would certainly kill him, but it would save the group of people tied to the track further down.

Here you probably just answered “No, it would be wrong to push the fat man over the bridge”. In fact, around 70-90% of people answer no to this dilemma, whilst almost 90% are prepared to sacrifice the single person tied to the side track in the first dilemma.

The human moral code

As interesting as the statistics for the above scenarios are, what I really find intriguing is why most of us seem to react in the same way. Why is it fine to sacrifice the person on the side track in the first example, but wrong to sacrifice the man on the bridge in the second? In both scenarios we’re trading one life for five, so shouldn’t they be seen as equal?

There have been a few possible suggestions made to explain this, including the difference in actively forcing a person to his doom (like pushing the fat man off the bridge against his will), but I think the main difference is in the attitude towards the victims. In the railroad switch scenario, the man on the side track is just an unfortunate example of collateral damage. In the man on the bridge example, however, we actively use a person as a tool in order to stop the tram.

To view human beings in such a cold and detached way is seen as morally wrong, as it dehumanises the person in question. In fact, the action of perceiving fellow human beings as mere tools to be used at your leisure is more or less the definition of a psychopath. So I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but if you selected to sacrifice the fat man and use him as a block to stop the tram there’s a high likelihood that you’re a psychopath and should probably seek professional help. Thought you might like to know.

Anyway – the point of all of this is that we do indeed seem to have moral codes hardwired into our brains. It’s not something we acquire through upbringing, education or religion. We’re ALL moral, and we ALL know what’s right or wrong – and we really do have an inner voice telling us what to do. This doesn’t make the world a perfect place, however: corruption, violence and cruelty is still commonplace. What we now know is that this is not because people lack morals, but because they have learnt how to ignore their inner voice.

Or because they are psychopaths.

* These moral scenarios are purely hypothetical, and any resemblance to places or persons (living or dead) are completely coincidental. Also, don’t try this at home. Not even with kittens. Kittens clearly have no moral code. Trust me on this one.

P.S. If you feel slightly worried after reading this post that you might be a psychopath, head over to my friend Lucy’s Football. She has sourced an additional (and much more comprehensive) psychopath test. From Canada, no less! Go on, click the link – she’s a blast!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 November 2011 14:22

    I have actually read this scenario before, but you tell it so much better! Also, the other guy did not warn anyone against trying it on kittens, which I find completely unethical.


  2. 18 November 2011 14:23

    On considering these scenarios, I too am fascinated by the subtleties with which we make our moral decisions. It almost seems like it is okay to kill more people to avoid being rude. Pushing people from bridges is extremely rude. No one is going to want to be friends with a person who goes around doing that.


    • 18 November 2011 14:54

      This is very true. Rudeness it’s unforgivable. And if a few people happen to bite the dust as a consequence of you being polite, so be it! They must have been pretty stupid, allowing themselves to be tied down to a railroad track, after all.


  3. 18 November 2011 14:24

    Oh, I almost forgot, did I pass?


    • 18 November 2011 14:45

      Well, even if you didn’t push the fat man over the bridge, you DID kill those first five people. Hmm.. Tricky.


  4. 18 November 2011 14:30

    So what does it mean if I think I *should* push the fat man off the bridge even though I don’t think I *could*?? Am I 50% psychopath?


  5. 18 November 2011 14:44

    There is one factor that has not been considered… What are the pushers feelings towards the fat man?


  6. Aino permalink
    11 February 2013 13:05

    I think part of the lesson here is the fact that in the second scenario, the possible single offer has a more tangible personality, since we know he is fat. The more we know about people, the harder it is to hurt them.


    • 11 February 2013 13:16

      That’s quite likely. The other figures are just diffuse ghosts without any character traits at all. Plus it feels wrong picking on someone who’s already got problems. Don’t be mean, don’t kill the fat guy.



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