22 March 2007

Moral Maze

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large. The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved. Would you push the stranger on to the tracks in order to save the five workmen?

Researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have been exploring the role of emotion in moral decisions and have discovered that while most people reject solutions to dilemmas that involve harming one person to save others, people with damage to an area of the brain just behind the forehead endorse such decisions.

Nature reports:

"Social emotions were really the scaffolding for what we came to construct as ethics. How those social emotions are taken into account in the process of decision-making seems to be very biological. When things get complicated, we engage an emotional system - it's not reason alone."
More moral dilemmas used in the research can be found in the report.