A absolutist takes the stance that the morality of a specific act virtually never depends on context or secondary consequences, but on the action being taken. Consequentialists feel that the consequences of the action will determine its moral value. The morality of consequentialism is often summed up as “the ends justify the means,” which automatically presents it in a bad light to most people. Thank you, Machiavelli.
One tool that researchers use to study people’s placement on this spectrum is called the Trolley Problem.
You decide to go for a walk along the trolley tracks that crisscross your town. As you walk, you hear a trolley behind you, and you step away from the tracks. But as the trolley gets closer, you hear the sounds of panic — the five people on board are shouting for help. The trolley’s brakes have gone out, and it’s gathering speed.
You find that you just happen to be standing next to a side track that veers into a sand pit, potentially providing safety for the trolley’s five passengers. All you have to do is pull a hand lever to switch the tracks, and you’ll save the five people. But there’s a problem. Along this offshoot of track leading to the sandpit stands a man who is totally unaware of the trolley’s problem and the action you’re considering. There’s no time to warn him. So by pulling the lever and guiding the trolley to safety, you’ll save the five passengers. But you’ll kill the man. What do you do?
There are also other variations requiring you to actually take an action (push a large man in front of the trolley to stop it, killing him but saving the passengers, etc) but they all are ways at looking at the same problem: namely, why is one action wrong and another possibly allowable when both will result in death? If a person dies in both scenarios, and either death is a direct result of your (in)action, what’s the distinction between the two?
This is a frequently used test and it assumes that people hold to their moral code relatively well, whichever they happen to live by. Well a few years ago, a research psychologist at Cornell, David Pizarro, created a variation in an attempt to test this underlying assumption. He thought we often acted first, and then scrambled for an explanation that lined up with our morality. Or, more bluntly, “that we choose our rule set according to how well it fits our desires.”
The change he introduced? He basically created two scenarios, both variations of the “kill the one to save the many” version of the Trolley Problem:
- You have to push a guy named Tyrone Payton to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
- You have to push a guy named Chip Ellsworth III to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra
As you probably already picked up, he inserted race into the problem without stating it right out. He was hoping the participants would not consciously think about Tyrone being a stereotypically black name and Chip Ellsworth being the name of basically every student at the University of Montana. Also included were the people being saved: the predominantly black jazz orchestra or the predominantly white New York Philharmonic.
With these two scenarios in hand, he presented them to, first, a group of California undergrads and then to random volunteers at an Orange Country Mall. As part of the study, the participants self identified as either conservative or liberal (for the undergrads) or a Democrat or a Republican (for the mall folk).
The results? The race of the actors in the story has a large effect… no matter your political identity. The effect, however, is the opposite for the two groups. Those that self-identified as conservative/Republican largely thought it OK to push Tyrone, but were more reluctant to push Chip. The liberal/Democrats were far more likely to be OK with giving Chip the shove and sparing Tyrone. People’s moral codes were highly influenced by there perception of the situation and actors. It suggests that the participants had mulitple sets of morals, one more consequentialist than another, and choose their morals to fit the situation.
I suppose it is not really surprising, even if it is kind of depressing.
One of Pizarro’s conclusions from the study was:
“The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”
This is how we can tell our children that the ends never justify the means, and that Richard III, Macbeth or The Prince are all flawed and villainous. But then the next day we can explain how bombing Hiroshima was bad, but morally justified because it shortened the war, i.e. led to less death.
In the end, most people claim to be moral absolutists… but aren’t. But to their defense, when this is pointed out the them, most have the good grace to be embarrassed about it.
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