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Dr. Bortrum

 

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03/17/2004

Dilemmas

This morning, as has been the case almost every morning since
we’ve come to Marco Island, I must decide whether to walk
north or walk south on the beach. It’s a decision that depends in
part on the wind direction – do I want the wind in my face when
I’m barely awake at 6 AM or on the return trip when I’m already
rather tired from the 45-minute walk to either end of the beach?
In the predawn hour that I walk, I typically meet few fellow
walkers and usually greet those I meet with a cheery good
morning. Some walkers obviously don’t want to be spoken to
and I have to decide whether or not to greet them. I had no
difficulty deciding not to greet one walker yesterday. This
fellow hung his head down and his mood was clearly one of
gloom and doom. Then I looked at his sweatshirt and the reason
for his dour mood was obvious. Emblazoned on the shirt in large
letters was “Chicago Cubs”! Poor fellow!

I make the above decisions very quickly and don’t ponder or fret
that I’ve done the wrong thing. However, a couple days ago I
faced a decision on my walk that involved life or death and even
now I feel badly that, from the moral standpoint, I probably made
a bad decision. I spotted a sugar starfish as I walked down the
beach. It was a perfect specimen, with five “arms” and I picked
it up. But was it dead or alive? I pondered this question for a
minute or so and wasn’t able to convince myself either way. So,
I tossed it back into the Gulf and continued my walk. About a
half hour later, on my return up the beach, what should I see but
what I’m reasonably certain was the very same starfish washed
back up on the sand in the same location. Well, wasn’t this a
clear sign that I should take the creature back to our condo? Yet
it took some serious consideration before I did just that.

At the time, this seemingly minor moral decision paled in
comparison with the difficult choices required in hypothetical
cases cited in an article I had read in the April 2004 issue of
Discover magazine. The article by Carl Zimmer is titled “Whose
Life Would You Save?” and covers some of the same ground as
another article by Gretchen Vogel titled “The Evolution of the
Golden Rule” that appeared in the February 20 issue of Science.
The articles concern questions of morality and fairness and how
our brain handles decisions of a moral nature.

Take the work of Joshua Greene, a young postdoctoral researcher
at Princeton University. Greene, a philosopher, likes to pose
moral dilemmas and get people’s reaction to them. Judging from
some of the dilemmas philosophers come up with, they seem to
be a gloomy lot. Could it be that they are all Chicago Cubs fans?
What could be more depressing than having to confront the
following dilemma, a dilemma dreamed up by Judith Jarvis
Thompson and Philippa Foot? You’re the driver of a trolley and
you realize suddenly that your brakes have failed. You’re going
along at full speed and a fork in the track looms directly ahead.
If you do nothing, the trolley will bear left. However, there are
five workers repairing the track on that left fork. If you hit a
switch, you will take the right fork. There’s a lone worker on the
right track. Do nothing and you kill five people; hit the switch
and you kill just one person. What do you do? I’d like to think
that I, like most people, would hit the switch.

But these philosophers can be cruel and challenge you with the
same essential situation, but with a twist. Now you’re on a
bridge and can see the runaway trolley approaching underneath.
This time there’s no fork, just straight track. You see five
workers on the track in the trolley’s path. Standing on the bridge
in front of you is a huge fellow, weighing about 500 pounds. If
you push him off the bridge onto the track below, he’s so big that
if the trolley hits him it will be stopped or at least slowed enough
that the five workers will have time to get off the track. Your
choice is the same as before – five lives or one? Do you push the
guy off the bridge?

The logical thing to do in both cases seems clear, save the five
men and sacrifice the one. But deliberately pushing a man to his
death is a lot different than hitting a switch. I certainly would
have trouble pushing the guy off the bridge. This moral dilemma
illustrates the difference in two modern theories of moral
reasoning shaped by two giants in philosophy, Immanuel Kant
and John Stuart Mill. Kant was of the opinion that pure reason
could lead to moral truths while Mill believed that the rules of
right and wrong should lead to results that achieve the greatest
good for the greatest number of people. Greene sums up the
opposing views: “Kant puts what’s right before what’s good”
while “Mill puts what’s good before what’s right.”

Casting aside both Kant and Mill, Greene goes back to David
Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, who concluded that
people say something is good because it makes them feel good
and something is bad because it disgusts them. But Greene is
more than just a philosopher and is carrying out experiments to
support his view. By employing magnetic resonance imaging,
MRI, he is able to determine what parts of the brain are activated
when volunteer subjects are presented with statements of moral
dilemmas such as the trolley example. He also checks their
responses to questions of a more mundane nature akin to my
decision about going north or south on the beach.

Sure enough, different parts of the brain are active when the
questions are relatively unemotional compared to when questions
involve personal moral decisions. The bottom line in his studies
to date seems to be that, when a moral decision is truly of a
personal nature (do I push the guy?), we aren’t relying on
reasoning alone to make judgments of right and wrong. Instead,
we are relying largely on our emotions. Furthermore, Greene
suggests that these dilemmas that he poses are triggering
emotional responses that are wired into our brains as a result of
millions of years of evolution.

Hume’s view doesn’t seem to say anything about making a
reasoned moral judgment, does it? One way of looking at
whether or not something is morally correct is to ask is it fair? Is
fairness hard wired in our brains? The answer might have been
decided with grapes and cucumbers! Both the Discover and
Science articles cite a paper published last years in the August
2003 issue of Nature. The paper contained the results of studies
by researchers Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal at Emory
University. If you were looking for a snack, which would you
prefer, grapes or a cucumber? Personally, I’d prefer the grapes.
In this regard, my tastes are similar to those of capuchin
monkeys. And therein lies Brosnan and de Waal’s test of
fairness.

What these workers did was to train the capuchin monkeys to
take pebbles from them and then give them back. When a
monkey gave back the pebble, it received a cucumber as a
reward. The monkeys were apparently quite content with this
arrangement. Then Brosnan and de Waal put two monkeys in
separate cages side by side and gave each a pebble. This time,
one monkey got the customary cucumber while the other monkey
was rewarded with a grape. Well, this tastier reward did not go
unnoticed by the cucumbered monkey. In following trials, over
half the time those cucumbered wouldn’t return the pebbles or, in
some cases, the offended monkeys would even go so far as to
throw the cucumber back at the researcher! These monkeys
knew instinctively that it wasn’t fair that the other monkey was
given preferential treatment.

It was pointed out that the monkeys hadn’t read either Kant or
Mill. Something in their brains told them about the unfairness
and they acted accordingly. Greene would say that our own
responses to moral dilemmas and questions of fairness are quite
likely hard-wired in our own brains, as in our primate cousins.

Perhaps you’re wondering about the starfish. I was afraid you’d
ask. Well, I put the creature on its back on the kitchen counter
while I got breakfast. It seemed quite inert but later, I was
startled to see that each of the arms had opened up, revealing lots
of little protrusions, like little stems with polyps on the ends.
And these protrusions were moving, probing around in the air,
expanding and contracting. The starfish was alive. Was it crying
out in pain and despair? I felt like a murderer! To return it to its
habitat would have required a half hour roundtrip walk in the sun
back to the shore. (One reason I walk so early in the morning,
with my history of skin cancers, is to avoid sun exposure.) In the
end, I opted to place the critter on our lanai in the sun. Its arms
closed up and it seems to be quite dead at this point. I still feel
badly, however, and will never pick up another starfish.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-03/17/2004-      
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Dr. Bortrum

03/17/2004

Dilemmas

This morning, as has been the case almost every morning since
we’ve come to Marco Island, I must decide whether to walk
north or walk south on the beach. It’s a decision that depends in
part on the wind direction – do I want the wind in my face when
I’m barely awake at 6 AM or on the return trip when I’m already
rather tired from the 45-minute walk to either end of the beach?
In the predawn hour that I walk, I typically meet few fellow
walkers and usually greet those I meet with a cheery good
morning. Some walkers obviously don’t want to be spoken to
and I have to decide whether or not to greet them. I had no
difficulty deciding not to greet one walker yesterday. This
fellow hung his head down and his mood was clearly one of
gloom and doom. Then I looked at his sweatshirt and the reason
for his dour mood was obvious. Emblazoned on the shirt in large
letters was “Chicago Cubs”! Poor fellow!

I make the above decisions very quickly and don’t ponder or fret
that I’ve done the wrong thing. However, a couple days ago I
faced a decision on my walk that involved life or death and even
now I feel badly that, from the moral standpoint, I probably made
a bad decision. I spotted a sugar starfish as I walked down the
beach. It was a perfect specimen, with five “arms” and I picked
it up. But was it dead or alive? I pondered this question for a
minute or so and wasn’t able to convince myself either way. So,
I tossed it back into the Gulf and continued my walk. About a
half hour later, on my return up the beach, what should I see but
what I’m reasonably certain was the very same starfish washed
back up on the sand in the same location. Well, wasn’t this a
clear sign that I should take the creature back to our condo? Yet
it took some serious consideration before I did just that.

At the time, this seemingly minor moral decision paled in
comparison with the difficult choices required in hypothetical
cases cited in an article I had read in the April 2004 issue of
Discover magazine. The article by Carl Zimmer is titled “Whose
Life Would You Save?” and covers some of the same ground as
another article by Gretchen Vogel titled “The Evolution of the
Golden Rule” that appeared in the February 20 issue of Science.
The articles concern questions of morality and fairness and how
our brain handles decisions of a moral nature.

Take the work of Joshua Greene, a young postdoctoral researcher
at Princeton University. Greene, a philosopher, likes to pose
moral dilemmas and get people’s reaction to them. Judging from
some of the dilemmas philosophers come up with, they seem to
be a gloomy lot. Could it be that they are all Chicago Cubs fans?
What could be more depressing than having to confront the
following dilemma, a dilemma dreamed up by Judith Jarvis
Thompson and Philippa Foot? You’re the driver of a trolley and
you realize suddenly that your brakes have failed. You’re going
along at full speed and a fork in the track looms directly ahead.
If you do nothing, the trolley will bear left. However, there are
five workers repairing the track on that left fork. If you hit a
switch, you will take the right fork. There’s a lone worker on the
right track. Do nothing and you kill five people; hit the switch
and you kill just one person. What do you do? I’d like to think
that I, like most people, would hit the switch.

But these philosophers can be cruel and challenge you with the
same essential situation, but with a twist. Now you’re on a
bridge and can see the runaway trolley approaching underneath.
This time there’s no fork, just straight track. You see five
workers on the track in the trolley’s path. Standing on the bridge
in front of you is a huge fellow, weighing about 500 pounds. If
you push him off the bridge onto the track below, he’s so big that
if the trolley hits him it will be stopped or at least slowed enough
that the five workers will have time to get off the track. Your
choice is the same as before – five lives or one? Do you push the
guy off the bridge?

The logical thing to do in both cases seems clear, save the five
men and sacrifice the one. But deliberately pushing a man to his
death is a lot different than hitting a switch. I certainly would
have trouble pushing the guy off the bridge. This moral dilemma
illustrates the difference in two modern theories of moral
reasoning shaped by two giants in philosophy, Immanuel Kant
and John Stuart Mill. Kant was of the opinion that pure reason
could lead to moral truths while Mill believed that the rules of
right and wrong should lead to results that achieve the greatest
good for the greatest number of people. Greene sums up the
opposing views: “Kant puts what’s right before what’s good”
while “Mill puts what’s good before what’s right.”

Casting aside both Kant and Mill, Greene goes back to David
Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, who concluded that
people say something is good because it makes them feel good
and something is bad because it disgusts them. But Greene is
more than just a philosopher and is carrying out experiments to
support his view. By employing magnetic resonance imaging,
MRI, he is able to determine what parts of the brain are activated
when volunteer subjects are presented with statements of moral
dilemmas such as the trolley example. He also checks their
responses to questions of a more mundane nature akin to my
decision about going north or south on the beach.

Sure enough, different parts of the brain are active when the
questions are relatively unemotional compared to when questions
involve personal moral decisions. The bottom line in his studies
to date seems to be that, when a moral decision is truly of a
personal nature (do I push the guy?), we aren’t relying on
reasoning alone to make judgments of right and wrong. Instead,
we are relying largely on our emotions. Furthermore, Greene
suggests that these dilemmas that he poses are triggering
emotional responses that are wired into our brains as a result of
millions of years of evolution.

Hume’s view doesn’t seem to say anything about making a
reasoned moral judgment, does it? One way of looking at
whether or not something is morally correct is to ask is it fair? Is
fairness hard wired in our brains? The answer might have been
decided with grapes and cucumbers! Both the Discover and
Science articles cite a paper published last years in the August
2003 issue of Nature. The paper contained the results of studies
by researchers Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal at Emory
University. If you were looking for a snack, which would you
prefer, grapes or a cucumber? Personally, I’d prefer the grapes.
In this regard, my tastes are similar to those of capuchin
monkeys. And therein lies Brosnan and de Waal’s test of
fairness.

What these workers did was to train the capuchin monkeys to
take pebbles from them and then give them back. When a
monkey gave back the pebble, it received a cucumber as a
reward. The monkeys were apparently quite content with this
arrangement. Then Brosnan and de Waal put two monkeys in
separate cages side by side and gave each a pebble. This time,
one monkey got the customary cucumber while the other monkey
was rewarded with a grape. Well, this tastier reward did not go
unnoticed by the cucumbered monkey. In following trials, over
half the time those cucumbered wouldn’t return the pebbles or, in
some cases, the offended monkeys would even go so far as to
throw the cucumber back at the researcher! These monkeys
knew instinctively that it wasn’t fair that the other monkey was
given preferential treatment.

It was pointed out that the monkeys hadn’t read either Kant or
Mill. Something in their brains told them about the unfairness
and they acted accordingly. Greene would say that our own
responses to moral dilemmas and questions of fairness are quite
likely hard-wired in our own brains, as in our primate cousins.

Perhaps you’re wondering about the starfish. I was afraid you’d
ask. Well, I put the creature on its back on the kitchen counter
while I got breakfast. It seemed quite inert but later, I was
startled to see that each of the arms had opened up, revealing lots
of little protrusions, like little stems with polyps on the ends.
And these protrusions were moving, probing around in the air,
expanding and contracting. The starfish was alive. Was it crying
out in pain and despair? I felt like a murderer! To return it to its
habitat would have required a half hour roundtrip walk in the sun
back to the shore. (One reason I walk so early in the morning,
with my history of skin cancers, is to avoid sun exposure.) In the
end, I opted to place the critter on our lanai in the sun. Its arms
closed up and it seems to be quite dead at this point. I still feel
badly, however, and will never pick up another starfish.

Allen F. Bortrum