Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:
For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..
Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.
Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.
I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:
Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.
There are, in fact, some objective moral truths. Personally, I think there are lots of them. And, in fact, our grasp of most of them is far from tenuous. Here are four objective moral truths:
Human suffering is bad
Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong
Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad
Being kind to people is good
Comments will probably attract nitpickers who want to deny one or another for these, or say that they simply express “western” values, or something like that, but all the statements are, in fact, true. The fact that stressing subjects, or reframing a problem, leads people to change their responses does not show that there are no right answers, on moral matters any more than on scientific or basic reasoning matters.
It also doesn’t show that our grasp of moral truth is tenuous. Lots of moral truths are completely obvious, and people have no problem with them. The point of varying the trolley problems is precisely to elicit confusion and inconsistency, by emphasizing different of the (very real) values that are at stake in the problems, which conflict in the circumstances described (as values do in many actual choices situations). The practice of designing and varying thought experiments is a tool for alerting us to what the conflicts are in a choice situation helping us to weigh them when we are forced, by the world, to make trade-offs. Our grasp of many of the values themselves—the objective moral truths—is not tenuous at all; under pressure it is difficult to identify all the morally salient features of a situation, and regardless of pressure it is difficult to weigh them in the circumstances.