m a r k a n d e y a

Moral Dilemmas

Posted by Brian on June 14, 2007

There is a widely-held belief that religious people are more ethical than the non-religious. This notion is based on the idea that religious people, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Moslem, have clear and unambigious “rules” about what is right and what is wrong, while the non-religious live in a shadowy world of ambiguity and confusion with any and all moral “rules” being completely arbitrary. Supporters of this belief would point out that while a Christian could say “murder is wrong” because the Bible says so, a secular agnostic, such as myself, has no such authority to appeal to to support the same rule of conduct. In other words, a religious person has an answer to the question, “Why is X wrong?” while a non-religous person is on shaky ground when it comes to finding an answer to such a question.

That’s the belief, anyway, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

Richard Dawkins dissects that very question with a look at a study on ethics done by Marc Hauser at Harvard University. Dr. Hauser created a series of moral dilemmas that reveal some very interesting tidbits of knowledge that show that human morality is somehow instinctual, that it doesn’t require an appeal to some otherwordly god to claim that murder is wrong.

They’re quite interesting to read and ponder on one’s own, so here are the moral dilemmas as written in Dr. Hauser’s study:

Scenario 1: Denise is a passenger on a train whose driver has just shouted that the train’s brakes have failed, and who then fainted of the shock. On the track ahead are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a side track leading off to the right, and Denise can turn the train onto it. Unfortunately there is one person on the right hand track. Denise can turn the train, killing the one; or she can refrain from turning the train, letting the five die.

Is it morally permissible for Denise to switch the train to the side track? (85%)

Scenario 2: Frank is on a footbridge over the train tracks. He knows trains and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control. On the track under the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. Frank knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control train is to drop a very heavy weight into its path. But the only available, sufficiently heavyweight is a large man wearing a backpack, also watching the train from the footbridge. Frank can shove the man with the backpack onto the track in the path of the train, killing him; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die.

Is it morally permissible for Frank to shove the man? (12%)

Scenario 3: Ned is taking his daily walks near the train tracks when he notices that the train that is approaching is out of control. Ned sees what has happened: the driver of the train saw five men walking across the tracks and slammed on the brakes, but the brakes failed and they will not be able to get off the tracks in time. Fortunately, Ned is standing next to a switch, which he can throw, that will temporarily turn the train onto a side track. There is a heavy object on the side track. If the train hits the object, the object will slow the train down, thereby giving the men time to escape. Unfortunately, the heavy object is a man, standing on the side track with his back turned. Ned can throw the switch, preventing the train from killing the men, but killing the man. Or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die

Is it morally permissible for Ned to throw the switch? (56%)

Scenario 4: Oscar is taking his daily walk near the train tracks when he notices that the train that is approaching is out of control. Oscar sees what has happened: the driver of the train saw five men walking across the tracks and slammed on the brakes, but the brakes failed and the driver fainted. The train is now rushing toward the five men. It is moving so fast that they will not be able to get off the track in time. Fortunately, Oscar is standing next to a switch, which he can throw, that will temporarily turn the train onto a side track. There is a heavy object on the side track. If the train hits the object, the object will slow the train down, thereby giving the men time to escape. Unfortunately, there is a man standing on the sidetrack in front of the heavy object, with his back turned. Oscar can throw the switch, preventing the train from killing the men, but killing the man. Or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die

Is it morally permissible for Oscar to throw the switch? (72%)

If you click and drag across the area in parantheses you can see the percentage of respondents who said “yes.” The full study can be found here.

As for my answers to the questions above, I voted yes, no, yes, and yes.

Most interesting about the results of his study is that:

“…across a variety of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, ages, educational backgrounds [including exposure to moral philosophy], and both genders, shared principles exist.”

If the “religion as the foundation of morality” argument were true, we should able to find evidence of non-religious people with moral compasses drastically out of wack with standard Judeo-Christian tenents. Instead, we see some moral evaluations holding true regardless of a wide variety of factors. This indicates that morality could be hard-coded in our DNA, giving us solid, non-religious reasons for saying things like “murder is wrong.”

They conclude:

In conclusion, our results challenge the view that moral judgments are solely the product of conscious reasoning on the basis of explicitly understood moral principles. Though we sometimes deliver moral judgments based on consciously accessed principles, often we fail to account for our judgments. When we fail, it appears that operative, but not expressed principles, drive our moral judgments.

Most religions have surprisingly similar rules of conduct (don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.). According to this study, these similarities could be explained by viewing religious moral edicts as confirmations of fundamental beliefs rather than the explanation of them.

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One Response to “Moral Dilemmas”

  1. scott said

    Yeah, just keep up with this kind of rationalization if you need to, but it doesn’t change the fact that you are going to HELL. FOREVER!

    OK, maybe not. Still waiting for some stastics showing atheists are more likely to commit crime. From what I’ve read, they seem less likely than those who profess to have a religion.

    And what is more impressive? A person who doesn’t steal without being commanded not to, or the person who doesn’t steal out of fear of an Angry God?

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