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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sacrificing one for the good of the many

Murder. What a concept. Killing another human being.­ If you're not some sort of psychopath, your moral compass is telling you that murder is wrong, malicious, unlawful, bad. Speaking in generalities, I don't think anyone has the right to take another human's life — death row, abortion, war and similar issues are subjects for another post, okay?

Murder. Many dictionaries use the word "premeditated" in the definition of the word, or something similar, like the readily used Merriam-Webster. To avoid breaking this post down to bare semantics, let's say, just for this post, that murder is defined as killing another human being but is not always premeditated or with aforethought of malice.

Now that I've warmed you all up, let me get to the point. Using murder to sacrifice one for the good of the many and the question of whether or not it is morally acceptable. Impersonally, without specifics, my reaction? A lukewarm "yes" — ignoring legal and religious consequences. I know what you're thinking: "But in the first paragraph you say no one has the right to take another human's life." Yes, I did say that generally I abide by this. But what I'm about to present to you are specific situations that even the most moral of us would probably grapple with.

I was listening to NPR recently (hold your opinions, let me get to the point) and two dudes (I don’t retain information like names) brought up a challenging moral dilemma, which I will paraphrase. You’re at a railroad crossing and there are five men working on the tracks. A train is nearing and for some reason — reasons that NPR ignored, I guess, for the sake of the argument — the men do not hear it coming or feel the vibration. The men are going to get hit by the train and be killed. However, there is something you can do. There is a lever that you could pull which would cause the track to switch to one going another way, thereby saving the five men. But there is one man on the other track. And if you pull the lever and make the train go onto the other track, the one man will be hit and killed. We have no information about any of these men, so I think we’re just supposed to assume that they’re all Average Joes. The question is, would you pull the lever?

The NPR dudes reported that 9 out of 10 people randomly interviewed said they would pull the lever. Burn that stat into your brain; it’s the only one I recall and I’m 100 percent sure that’s what they said. You can easily defend this 90 percent of people by arguing that you’re sacrificing one for the good of the many. I get that. But then the situation was changed slightly to say that instead of pulling a lever you had to push the one man in front of the train. Why? Who knows, but again, we’re ignoring missing details and such. Did that 9 out of 10 again say “yes”? Nope. Many (pardon my brain, I don’t remember any more specific numbers) said that in that case they would not do it.

Here is where the report started to annoy me. The NPR dudes brought in Scientific Guy (da dada daaaaa!) who described a study involving taking pictures of people’s brains while they decided what they would do in these train scenarios. The “pull the lever” pictures and the “push the man” pictures were different (cue gasps). While thinking about what they would do, totally separate areas of the subjects’ brains lit up for the different scenarios. According to Scientific Guy, this is surprising, telling, and incredibly interesting. Scientific Guy kept maintaining that this was so amazing because the two scenarios are inherently the same, so there should be no difference in brain activity.

Sir, your theory is flawed!

And this is where the problem pops up. Scientific Guy is basing his findings on the assumption that he is asking essentially the same question twice. But I don’t think this is true. In order for me to take his findings as true and accurate I have to believe that the variable (the scenario) is constant. And it’s not! The two scenarios may look inherently the same, but you cannot rely on what is and is not inherent when human emotion is involved. What Scientific Guy is loosely presenting is that different parts of the brain were determining morality assumedly based on human emotion. Understandable, I’ll definitely concede to that. But he kept insisting that wow, this is so amazing because the questions are exactly the same. Nope, nope, and nope.

I think Scientific Guy is missing the part that the questions are not, in fact, the same firmly because of human emotion. Otherwise, human emotion would be irrelevant and the brain would light up in the same area for both scenarios and we could all go home.

Granted, I am not a scientist, a psychologist, a researcher, or any sort of scientific professional by any standard — my profession and Scientific Guy’s profession don’t even send each other Christmas cards. I am, however, a human being. And as a human being with thoughts, feelings, and emotions, I really think that the two questions are different. Isn’t that what the brain shows us in Scientific Guy’s findings? He says that there is differing brain activity when pondering two questions that are inherently the same; I feel the fact that the brain reacts thusly is proof that the two questions are not the same. The first scenario of pulling the lever feels (it’s important to note the word that I’m choosing to use here) less direct, less personal, like there’s less “blood on your hands.” The second scenario of pushing the man is direct, personal, forceful. There’s real contact.

I understand that what I’m saying and what Scientific Guy is saying are two sides of the same coin, but it really bothered me that he was blindly ignoring that the questions cannot be inherently the same precisely due to what his study found. Of course, this is just my opinion.

The next situation the NPR dudes presented did somewhat alleviate my frustration because it more directly addressed what bothered me about the train scenarios. Would you kill your own baby to save others? The complete scenario takes place during a war and your village is being raided. You and many others are hiding under a house and have to be completely silent so you won’t be found while the invaders search the house. But you have a colicky baby. One cough, one sniff could draw attention to everyone hiding and risk everyone’s lives. You have to decide if you are willing to smother your baby to keep it quiet in order to ensure that the many other villagers live.

It’s difficult for the “sacrifice one for the good of the many” to stand here. It may feel easier to do it if it were a random child instead of your child, but the parental bond and human emotion here could easily overrule any moral conflict you would be feeling. Of course, most people said that they didn’t think they would be able to smother their child. But surprisingly, the NPR dudes did report that there were some people who said they would kill the baby. They played a sound clip of a woman saying that she would do it because she had the “right” to do so, it being her child. Her answer isn’t quite on point, but it is shocking nonetheless.

I specifically remember one the NPR dudes reiterating this second scenario in a different way, and this one sound bite keeps playing in my head: “would you murder — ’cause that’s what it is…” This brings me all the way back to the beginning of my post: murder.

You probably see now why I went out of my way to define the word in the simplest of terms. Without premeditation. Without malice. Even so, can these two scenarios be boiled down to “would you murder?” I think the more appropriate question is “would you sacrifice one for the good of the many?” As the slightly differing train questions and the baby question show it’s not black and white.

We don’t know anything about the men on the train tracks. We know how most of us would feel pulling the lever or pushing the one man. We wonder if — as one of NPR dudes pointed out — killing one baby would be justified if it meant the surviving villagers would live to have dozens more. We know that we don’t want innocent people to die.

We don’t know if we would sacrifice one — commit murder — for the good of the many.


*note: As some of you many notice, this article has a down-style headline, when normally the headlines are up-style. I'm making this statement to let you know that I did it on purpose. If you're like me, your brain might go "MISTAKE!" without a style-change explanation. In conclusion, it's not a mistake, I'm just trying it out.


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