Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Moral Dilemmas

One of my blogging buddies, Alicia, had a post in March of 2009 titled Moral Dilemmas in her excellent blog Titere con Bonete.

Original post:

EDIT 10-18-11:  Alicia posted her original post again at the top of her blog.  It should collect a nice set of comments with her large following. You can find the re-posted version here:

Titere Con Bonete, October 18, 2011, The Post That Keeps On Giving

I replied to her blog, but because:  A) I loved my brilliant reply so well, and  B) my reply is buried in a post so long ago that it will never see the light of day, and C) (the real reason) I need a post in my blog…it has been so long I am afraid I will lose the few readers I have,  I have stolen the reply (well it is mine) and modified it a bit to stand alone and posted it here in my blog.  Alicia please forgive me for stealing my reply, and thanks for having a really neat blog.

There is an interesting Radiolab episode which considers moral dillemas  The question they used is this:

Scenario 1.

There are five workers repairing a railroad track. A trolley is coming and can't stop in time to not hit the workers.  The workers are facing away from the trolley and don’t know that it is coming.  

There is a switch which could divert the trolley down another track. On that track is only one worker. You, of course, are standing next to the switch and can pull the lever to divert the trolley.

If you do nothing five workers die. If you pull the switch, only one worker dies.

What do you do?

Scenario 2

Same scenario as above, a trolley will kill five workers.

However, this time you are standing on an overhead bridge next to a another person.

If you push the person off the bridge, that person will die but will stop the trolley.

If you do nothing, the five workers will die. If you push the person off the bridge, only one person dies.

What do you do?

Here is the link to the Radiolab podcast. This segment should be about 14 minutes long.

If you don't want bothered with listening, here was the results limited to my shaky memory.  Most people find scenario 1 to be a no brainer.  Pull the switch and save five lives at the cost of one.  It doesn't even require much thought.  Scenario 2 on the other hand is equally a no brainer. Almost no one is willing to push the person off the bridge, and most people find the notion quite horrific, even though the calculation is exactly the same, take action and save five lives at the cost of one.
Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex

So a researcher named Joshua Green asked what the hell is going on here?  He stuck some people in a functional MRI scanner.  This is a scanner that images energy consumption in different parts of the brain, so it can show what parts of the brain are activated when considering a problem or hearing a story.  What they found was the two scenarios above lit up totally different parts of the brain.  Scenario 1 lit up the calculation area in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  The morality of this problem is not much different than balancing your check book.

Scenario 2 on the other hand lit up the "thou shall not kill" emotional and moral part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex.

For more information see Green's Homepage at Harvard:

Harvard University, Joshua D. Green's Homepage

Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

So it reduces down to basically this. Our brains handle scenario 1 as a math problem, but scenario 2 as murder, yet they are have exactly the same outcomes.  If you take action, you save five lives at the cost of one.  But it seems that action at distance is different than being up close and personal. 

So are God and religious teaching the ultimate sources of the morality in these questions or not?  Green doesn't think so, nor do I.   I suspect (not know) that if you put any normal human being born within the past 5,000, if not 10,000 years in a fMRI, you would get the same results regardless of location, time, education, religious belief, or the quality of parenting.  I think children raised in a Soviet orphanage would respond the same as a child  born and raised by loving religious parents.  Again, this is opinion and not fact, as such it worthless.  But I think these things are instinctual to human beings, not taught by religions. Thus did we evolve to not kill members of own species?  Not sure, I suspect so, but it may require a tighter definition, we evolved not to kill those that we identify as being “us”.

Let's jazz up our problem. Kick it up a notch, as they say.

Scenario 2, you are on the bridge in 1942 somewhere in the USA.  You know for a fact the person next to you is a Nazi spy. What do you do? 

Scenario 2. You are on the bridge with another unknown person (not bad not good--just unknown). To your horror you look down and it is five of your young children playing on the track (not workers).

Scenario 2. You are standing on the bridge next to an ox.  Push the ox, save five men.

I don't think many people would have a problem with pushing the ox off the bridge.  The workers are us, the ox is not.

What about the Nazi spy?  He is dedicated to our defeat and enslavement, yet he is still a human being. Do you push the Nazi spy to save five American workers?  I think I would.  The spy is in the evil Nazi tribe.  The workers are in our good American tribe.  The spy is less us than the five guys on the track. 

Your children. There are five of very much us (us to you) and one unknown who is not as much us.  Goodbye Mr. Unknown!    

Now let's further complicate the matter. You are sitting on a jury of the person who did push another person off the bridge. No doubt about it, he pushed a person to his death.  How do your rule?

Change that another way.  You are sitting on the jury of a wrongful death suit as a result of scenario 1.  The plaintiff states that, had the defendant not pulled the lever to the switch, her husband and the father of her five wonderful young children would still be alive.  The natural course of events would have spared her husband.  The defendant’s actions killed her husband.  How do you rule? 

Getting back to the basic problem of how much God has to do with this, my answer is not very satisfying.  Everything and nothing.  We have the ability to make moral judgments.  So do dogs.  Do dogs have souls?  Many species of fish will gladly eat their own young.  Do fish not have souls? 

Karen Armstrong brought up an interesting concept in one of her books, unfortunately it whetted my appetite but I quit reading the book for one reason or other, so I may be talking out my ass here.  Basically she said that the atheists are right God does not exist. If you look in a telescope, a microscope, an atom smasher, a computer, or any other scientific device, and you are not going to find God.  Why?  Simply because God does not exist in the fashion that you exist, or the Andromeda galaxy exists, or a bacteria exists, or the quantum foam exists. God is not of this world and trying to prove God's existence is a fool's game guaranteed to lose.  If you and I are standing in a room and I see a green Martian and you don't, the burden of proof is on me.  Ergo God does not exist.  Scientific fact.

Ask any physicist, how far back do we know and they will stop at a few zillionths of second before the big bang. Not only do we not know what happened "before" the big bang, there is a good chance we can not know, and there is also a very good chance that there is nothing to know.  So my theory is that God is an old white guy with a big long beard sitting in a rocking chair right on the other side of the big bang. And HE really loves Irish males, and created woman from an Irish guy's rib to serve him and keep him entertained in the bedroom.  OK I am being a shithead, but a shithead on purpose. We tend to make God one of us. God is created in our own image and therefore, we can have very divine feelings about pushing Nazi spies off a bridge to save American workers.

I have a very good reason to believe in God...I should have died in a head on collision in the Mojave Desert in 1972, and I have no logical explanation why I didn't. My belief has nothing to do with churches, Bibles, bishops, or religious teachings.  My belief in God is based on simple empiricism...I should be dead and I am not.  Well that is fine for me but it doesn't do much for the rest of the world. There are a hell of lot more people who have lost loved ones that could say, God did nothing to save my loved one. There is no God.  Think of the trenches of WWI.  Millions of men died horrific deaths on opposite sides of no man's land all praying to the same God.       

I am a full fledged evolutionist. I believe we evolved from some organic chemicals over the course of billions of years. I do not believe that we were created in seven days by the hand of God so many thousands of begats ago. But to me evolution is a process not a reason.  Evolution describes how we got here, not why we got here.

When I think of God sometimes I think of the international prototype kilogram standard. It is a precisely machined chunk of platinum iridium alloy sitting in an environmentally controlled vault in International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres France.  God can strike me as some vial of TRUTH  that floats around in the super space to super space well beyond the borders of our universe, and any of the infinite parallel universes that may or may not be out there.  Other times I think of God as being a harried loving mother who loves her children enough to let them do whatever they want regardless of the consequences.

So no, I don't think God is directly responsible for our morality, we evolved it. God does not exist.  Not in this world. I believe in God, but not as a thing that exists in our universe.  But, yes, I think God is responsible for the entire shebang, and for all I know God may very well be the shebang.  So yes, God had everything to do with our evolution of morality.

On the other hand:

Alas, just when I am starting to feel good about humanity again, another one of my blogger buddies, Jo, posts this:

Majority of Two, October 14, 2011, The Third Wave

Image Credits:

Wikipedia, Anterior cingulate cortex

Dr. Shock MD, PhD.Neurostimulating Blog,   Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex



  1. I'm a member of the Christian Tribe. The God I believe in is beyond description but is the same God all other Tribes can't describe either.The fellow with the white beard, the fellow who wandered around Israel a couple of thousand years ago, and that white dove that flies around are images of God I can relate to.
    Other Tribes have created other images which they relate to. We have a terrible time understanding the cultures of other Tribes. We have an equally terrible time understanding their images of God. Just because the images differ doesn't mean that what is imaged, the incomprehensible God, doesn't exist. The studies of the brain you cite indicate that Morality may well be one of the results of evolution instead of the way particular Tribes create images of God. I managed once to comment as Anonymous so I'll try that again. I am, of course the Old Baguette or NanookMN.

  2. You see Anonymous, you are just like have many names and mental images, NanookMN, Old Baguette, and your real name but it is still you. Alan Watts said that religions are like paths to the top of the mountain. Some paths are harder, some are easier. One will see different thing on the south slope than those on the north. But when you get to the top, it is the same top, regardless of what path you have taken. Did God give us morality or did God wait until we had our morality? Clocks don't mean shit to God.

  3. Hmmm... I will probably come back to this to mull some more on a more intellectual plane.

    But one thing I find interesting. How come no one offers the choice to jump off the cliff yourself, to save the lives of everyone else?

    That would be my instinct with the children... so what does that mean?

    I'll be back undoubtedly. That was my initial response to pushing the person next to me off the bridge to save others. I don't know that I could, but I think the idea that I could not do that myself would stop me from pushing someone else. We TOUCH the person. We WATCH the person DIE.

    It is a viscerally active thing to do, far more than flipping a switch.

    Enough for now. The entire concept of God is something I must tackle after food. That's just me. And I am glad you posted, sir. VERY

  4. Wow. You've really done it now, Sextant. Like JeannetteLS, I'll be back to mull some more. She makes a good point about self-sacrifice. But who would actually do that-- and make the decision in time to save the five in jeopardy? As for me, I think there's really no connection between morality and a belief in God. And does it really matter how the world and our species got started? I believe humans created God, and not the other way around, because it comforts us-- at least most of us-- to believe in something greater than ourselves. I think it's a self-soothing mechanism. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  5. Jeannette, thanks for stopping by. In the material I read and the Radiolab episode, indeed throwing yourself in front of the trolley was not an option that was considered. It would be my guess that if you did the brain scan on this option, that yet another entirely different area would be activated, an area obviously involved with self preservation. Then I would also imagine that one area would light up for workers and entirely different area would light up for the children, and your children would light up a different area than someone else's children. Fathers might be different than mothers.

    Let's throw some more shit in the game. Back to scenario 1. You are standing next to the switch with the lever in your hand. The trolley is coming, 5 workers straight ahead, 1 worker on the alternate track. The one worker on the alternate track just happens to be your husband that you love very much. Do you throw the switch to save 5 workers and kill your husband?

    I can tell what would happen if it were my wife on the alternate track...good bye 5 workers! One of you dumb bastards should have been looking up the tracks! You can throw shit in the game until the cows come in. What if hubby is on the main track but your child (just one this time so we have equivalence) is on the side track?

    I will be interested in hearing your full bellied concept of God. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Wow. Interesting! I think there is one scenario you might have missed here in your brilliant (!!!) post. I think sometimes human beings tend to freeze when they are in situations such as you have mentioned. There is a feeling that time stands still and everything is in slow motion. That may be the brain's way of protecting us. So, we may not have the mental capacity to choose any of the scenarios, because they would entail quick action, which we would not be capable of at that moment.

    I once saw a man who was about to be hit by a bus. He was in a crosswalk and had the walk sign, and the bus was running a red light. I tried to reach up and grab the man's collar and pull him back, and I felt as if I were made of lead. I was frozen and I couldn't move. Everything was in slow motion. I could see my hand very slowly reaching out to him, and it took and eternity. I wasn't fast enough, and the bus hit him. He was seriouly injured, but he did live, thank goodness. Notice I didn't say thank God, because for me, the jury is still out regarding God. I would like to believe God exists, but to me He just seems too capricious, like a mischievous child, not a loving father to all mankind. I think, in the long run, that are more people who have not been protected by God, than there are people who have been.

    I have known *born-again* Christians who didn't have a Christian bone in their bodies, and folks who were atheist, who were the kindest people I knew. So, I don't think it is whether or not we believe, and the onus should not be up to us to prove God's existance.

    Hello, God, are you there?

    Interesting post, and it has given me something to think about today.

  7. Donna, always a delight to have you drop in. Thanks for your patience. I haven't been inspired much here lately.

    We never know what we would do in these situations, our minds operate differently in a crises than sitting in front of a computer or lying in a fMRI scanner. But I sure as hell ain't gonna throw myself in front of the trolley for the workers. My kids? Hmmmm. Yes, I would love to say, yes I will gladly sacrifice myself for my children. Would I have the courage to do it? I don't know. I don't believe I could push the other guy, murder him, for either five strangers or five of my children.

    Now here is an interesting thought? What about scenario 1? Everybody is a stranger. If you act, one guy dies. If you don't act five guys die. I hinted at this above in the wrongful death suit. Looking at it from the family of guy #6 off on the alternate track's point of view, what should you do? If you were not there, guy # 6 lives and 5 guys die. Well that's life. Viscerally as Jeannette said, your immediate response would be to pull the switch, save the 5 guys. But if this event would just so happen to take place tomorrow, after you have been pondering it for hours, should you pull the switch? The natural course of the universe, if you were not there, is that the five die and one lives. So should you interfere with the natural course of the universe?

    So if human beings created God, does God exist? You may be right, God could very well be nothing but a human construction. That doesn't quite fit with my miraculous escape from being smeared out across the Mojave Desert, but I am sure that if you sent a committee of atheists out to where the accident should have occurred, they could come up with 100 sound factual reasons why I didn't pull over into the center lane to make my left turn and get squished. So my little miracle, first of all is only good for me, and second of all is anecdotal and ergo worthless as any kind of evidence. So I find I must give your thoughts a high level of credence, especially due to the fact that I have no faith. I don't believe anyone that says I am going to hell, even though I have a first class ticket on the ferry across the river Styx from the American Lutheran Church...impure thoughts over a leg if you remember.

    Any how I hope you are wrong. A part of me really wants to live forever, not in this pile of trash biological goo bag that I am forced to live in, but as pure spirit floating about in the astroplane. But part of me also recognizes the possible truth in your belief...except that it don't jive with my miracle.

  8. Jo, you slipped in there, while I was responding to Donna.

    I have lived both sides of your comment about freezing up. One time while Geocaching on a steep hillside covered with rocks, my wife stumbled and did this pirouette that seemed to last forever. I am flailing at her and trying to grab her to keep her from falling but I can't. She spins and spins, in fact like a bad dream, my memory of it is the world is spinning and I see all these rocks spinning by, which one will kill her? She fell hit her head on a rock and I knew in my heart she was dead. A moment later she opened her eyes, "wow, that hurt." She was OK.

    Another time at work, a guy was working in cabinet and a cold leg instrument line blew off. In a matter of moments the line would turn to steam and severely burn the guy. I quickly shut off the valve isolating the pressurizer. I did it without thinking, and I have no idea how I knew to do it. Oh sure with a minute to think, maybe even 15 second to think, I could have figured out what to do, which was closing the correct valve. But it was immediate, I jumped on the valve and got it closed. In 15 seconds the guy would have got severely burnt. As it was he got soaked with cold water that got a bit hotter than what is comfortable, but he didn't suffer any burns.

    So in one of the events I helplessly flailed in slow motion at my wife, the woman I love and is the entire world to me, and in the other I immediately did the correct thing on a fairly complicated facility without thinking. Why, I don't know.

    David Eagleman has done a lot research involving the possible time dilation during falls. Does time actually slow down during a fall? I posted a very long post about this a few months ago:

    Odd you should mention about the born again Christians and the atheists. I have been revisiting the notion of levels of spiritual advancement with a friend. James Fowler wrote a book called Stages of Faith. M. Scott Peck borrowed his ideas in one of his books and the result is quite interesting. In spiritual advancement the average run of the mill atheist is more advanced than a by the book, dogmatic, person of faith (not limited to Christians). You can read about it here:

    If you read only up to the heading of Expansion of Concepts, you will get the gist of Peck's ideas without having to read the entire long page. I have found this concept to greatly explain why some people are so ready to cast the first stone and others are far more forgiving. I would add a fifth stage, actually in between stage 3 and stage 4 called seeking. It seems to be the permanent stage that I have been in for the past 39 years, when I should have been reduced to a grease spot in the Mojave Desert. I was a big time agnostic perhaps atheist at 19:24 and a believer at 19:25, but have been seeking ever since.

    Great of you to stop by Jo, always an honor.

  9. How exciting, what a great conversation you've stirred up here Sextant! I truly enjoyed reading your post and asking family & friends what they would do. As you say, Scenario #1, a no brainer, they all said they would pull the lever. Scenario #2 was a little different but not much. When they had finished answering about #1 and #2, I threw in the question in #2 about throwing yourself on the track instead of murdering someone else and mouths just dropped open! They had not even considered that. Causing me to think that maybe we're trained to make decisions only on the choices that we are given. Not many people think outside of the box. This is the choice, do you push the guy off the bridge or not, there is no other option given so you base your decision on that. Would it change if you were truly standing on that bridge with that split second to make the decision? When no one has given you a choice?

    Isn't that what military training is like, especially in the Marine Corp where you are trained to follow your leader no matter what? No questions asked? Could that perhaps explain why veterans have so many mental problems once they return, because they now actually have time to stop and consider what they did when they were just following orders and it doesn't mesh with what they actually would have done if they had used their own intuition, their own judgement, their own morals and values?

    I did go to the link you supplied for James Fowler and quickly glanced at the stages but I plan to go back and read them more thoroughly. This is all very fascinating and eye opening to me.

    It's also been very interesting to read the many comments and varied ideas and views. This was a great post Sextant. I'm happy that you were able to glean a little inspiration from an old post of mine from two years ago. Thank you for including the link and I'm glad it got your mind a'whirling!

  10. Alicia

    First thanks for bringing up this subject in your blog well over two years ago. If I hadn't been reading and replying to your blog, I would have never posted this.

    Excellent point on thinking outside the box, and yes, one has to wonder about the moral quandaries that the military faces in combat situations. It is one of the reasons that the military specifically but the government in general will tend to dehumanize the opposing beligerents. Make them less like "us". It is a lot easier to kill them when they really are subhuman. So great observations! Fortunately when I was in the Air Force, I didn't run into any moral quandaries fixing air planes!

    I first encountered these stages of faith about 20 years ago when I was into M. Scott Peck's books during my seeking of course. The bastard let me down in his book In Search of Stones when he admitted to bedding down his patients over the years, and further admitted that the only reason he stopped cheating on his wife is that he was physically incapable. I don't know if the little blue pill restored his prowess or not, but infidelity from someone trying to sell me Christianity was a low point in my seeking. But that doesn't change the fact that the stages of faith or spirituality are an excellent concept and certainly explains much of the confusion regarding how people handle their religious beliefs.

    Getting back to our scenario 1 or 2, I think it would be helpful for all to realize that when one is doing brain scans you want to keep the parameters of the problem extremely simple so that one can isolate the area of the brain that is being activated. Therefore I am sure the experimenters didn't throw a lot of variables into the problem. It is thought provoking though to make a few changes here and there and see how one's thoughts change.

    Again thanks for inspiration in your blog. I will have to go snooping around some more in your has some wonderful jewels awaiting to be rediscovered.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  11. Update Alicia re-posted her original post from March of 2009 to move it to the top of her blog. With her large group of followers, she should get some great commentary. The new posting is here:

    Thanks again, Alicia, for this interesting topic.

  12. Besides having a great blog with good posts and an attractive design, what exactly did you do to acquire so many fans? I lost my fans when a hacker sent me off on a trip to Cyprus. So I'm starting all over again. Can't complain about the comments, though. You and Sextant write comments worth reading. (If only I could figure out how to respond!)

    As you know, I write a lot in my blog about the "professionals" who are giving the Roman Catholic Church a seedy name. But I don't write about God. And, I'm not good about writing about moral dilemmas, either. I cheat.
    So, let me simply say that I've been reading the posts and comments with great interest.
    The Old Baguette or NanookMN, take your pick.

  13. Alicia, The Old Baguette is addressing you in the above post.

    Old Baguette, Why don't you write about God? I would be very interested in your take. As far a cheating on the moral dilemmas, what the hell you, probably saved yourself a headache.