Morality (Radiolab)

Welcome to the first installment of my attempt at thoughtful exploration, or at least to think. I decided to try the Radiolab episode on Morality first, you know, start small.

This episode starts off with a two part thought experiment. You will have to make a choice at the end of each one.

Part One
You are near some train tracks, there are five workers on the track. They’ve got their backs turn to the trolley, which is coming in the distance. They do not see, hear or feel it coming. You can’t shout to them, and if you do nothing, they will all die.
You have two choices

  1. You can do nothing
  2. There is a lever next to you, which you can pull, causing the trolley to jump on to some side tracks where there is only one worker.

So, do you kill  1 man by pulling a lever or kill 5 by doing nothing?

My answer is pull the damn lever, and I am not alone. They claim 9 out of 10 people choose to pull the lever. What’s your answer?

Part Two
You are standing above some train tracks, on a foot bridge. There are five guys below, just as in the first question. The trolley is coming, again, they can not hear, see or feel its approach. You can not yell, signal or in anyway tell them of the impending doom. Next to you is a large man, and you realize if you pushed him, he would divert the train and the train would only kill the fat man, saving the five workers.
*For the sake of this experiment, let us assume you can not sacrifice yourself

  1. Do you do nothing, allowing all 5 to die
  2. Do you push the fat man and save the 4 workers?

There have been hundreds of people asked this question, and though most say “yes” to the first, the same amount say “NO” to the second part. Resoundingly so. When asked “why?”, most people can not explain why murder by lever is okay while murder by pushing is wrong.

They follow the path of science and look at how the brain reacts when deciding these questions of calculation and morality. Different parts of the brain light up with each question, on the first it’s a question of logic, while on the second it’s a more instinctual guttural reaction.  They ask the question, is morality part of our evolution or an aspect that sets us apart as creatures of reason?

For my two cents, I think I’d pull the lever and push the guy. Unless of course they were related to me, then fuck the bastards on the ground. Logic vs ingrained instinctual evolved reactions?

This episode goes in many directions and I don’t think I can cover it all here, but I wanted to focus on these questions and one or two other points. They bring into question how we think and why. Why we feel the way we do and how it informs our moral make-up.

I have one more layer to add. The M.A.S.H> question.

You are in a basement, in a war torn region, with all of your village; family and friends you have known everyday of your life. You are holding your baby, who has as stuffy nose. Enemy forces are scouring the village, and they will torture and kill anyone they find. Your baby has been coughing. If you cover the baby’s mouth they won’t hear, and your village will escape, but you will smother the baby and she/he will die. Do you sacrifice everyone’s life, including your own and the baby’s OR do you kill your own child, saving everyone else?

My wife said “I would risk it, I wouldn’t kill my child. That’s a cowards way out”, which I understand, but I have to ask a question. Couldn’t it also be perceived as the cowards way out to NOT kill the baby?. Perhaps not being able to make this sacrifice for the better of the many over the one is the ultimate cowardice? This goes against something so base within us, our children, the reason to continue on and be better. Even if you aren’t a parent, the whole argument of  “you have to think of the future” posed against any short sighted effort, whether it be pollution or choosing a job that helps others..it’s all for the future of what? The continuation of our species, right? Even the only mildly adjusted among us, don’t like to see children hurt, it just goes against how we’re made.

What would you do? Some days I would sacrifice my child. I would probably kill myself right after and follow them along that path, but I think I would do it. On other days when I hold my daughter, when she’s tired and her body is heavy and limp, trusting me to hold her? I realize I have walked away from logic and any life would be worth one more breath from her little body.  I’m not sure which path is stronger, weaker or morally bereft.This also calls in to question, the sanctity of life. My wife would argue that all life is sacred, hence the ban on swatting bugs in my house. I on the other hand, don’t see life that way.

When I was 13, my psychiatrist made an observation that has followed me my whole life. She said I displayed “sociopathic tendencies” , that I lacked a certain level of empathy, my sense of “guilt” was underdeveloped (or barely recognizable..whatever). The morality conversation, invariably smacks into the idea of empathy. Does it separate us from other creatures? Are we born with empathy in place? The Radiolab episode touches on children, exploring when empathy develops and how. Anecdotally, it seems like it’s both part of us as a species and something fine tuned by societal expectations. How then, does that effect those of us without the same societal expectations?

We teach our kids about hitting, fairness, being kind etc, many ideals we ourselves have bent and broken given the right circumstance (or person).  Yet what they are saying is that the core values, of right and wrong (“Do you kill your baby?”) strikes us in the reptile brain, a knee jerk denial taking hold. The finer points are harder to parse out.

Radiolab ponders if shame/guilt are the emotions that divide us from our primate cousins. I wonder about this a lot. I was never a guilty person, I felt and still do, that is a mostly wasteful emotion. It tears people apart, and I have rarely if ever seen any good come of it. I will add shame to this pile too. Regret, yes, I get that. Being aware you made a mistake, or hurt someone, and confronting that while trying to alter that behavior in the future, that I understand. Shame? Guilt? I would much rather have someones changed behavior over their heartfelt sorrow at a slight. Alternately, anxiety over guilt and shame from a past action seems to fell the strongest, brightest people I have known. Instead of these emotions being the things that makes us special, I wonder if they are the Achilles heel that foils the brightest among us?

Our daughter is testing and pushing, trying out things she knows will get a reaction. She will kill the bug her cousin wants to save, just to see what will happen. If she was at home, she would of saved the bug. She says hurtful things to her mommas like “I don’t like you, I want you to leave this family!”. She is aware of curse words but is not so interested in those, she is going after the ones she sees dividing adulthood from childhood, those that are not allowed to her, “stupid” being top on the banned list. My wife worries that she will become a “mean girl”, but I am fascinated by this emotional growth, this mental drawing of lines in the sand.

What is “good” and what is “bad”? How do we figure it out? What IS morality? She is making observations along the lines of empathy, trying them on, seeing if they fit her quickly growing sense of self. Watching her makes me realize that if any of us is still growing, still discovering our world (which I hope to be doing until my body ends), we are still doing this. I am still learning what is right and wrong, as I get older and the lines blur and reform. I have had high ideals over the years, things I believed to be absolute and almost all of them have been, if not broken, remade into different less black and white versions of themselves.

I am still defining morality for myself and trying to help my daughter figure her’s out as well, with differing levels of success. I would like to hear other stories and ideas on the subject, so please share them with me if you are so inclined.  One way conversations are rather boring, I hope you will join in.

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2 thoughts on “Morality (Radiolab)

  1. Thanks for creating this type of great publish which can
    be actually well written.will end up being mentioning plenty of friends concerning
    this.Keep blogging.

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