Locomotion and Our Moral Notion
Is there a universal moral grammar?
Debates about a human “moral sense” often spotlight the innumerable set of “taboos” that exist along cultural lines. These debates tend to confirm the common belief that culture cultivates a kind of context-dependent, moral-sentiment mélange in the psychology of its citizens which holds the group together and allows for both praise and punishment of, respectively, conformers and villains. However, many of these rules (though there are obvious exceptions) are downright, and sometimes comically, arbitrary.
“Do not use elevators from Friday night to Saturday night”
“Don’t wear blue in my neighborhood”
“Utter the phrase ‘excuse me’ when gas from your digestive tract is released through your mouth”
While these group-specific rules may elicit strong moral feelings in those who abide by them, it is not the rule itself that holds any moral weight (i.e. “please” is just a six-letter word); it is the fact that it is agreed upon among those who follow it that really matters, and ultimately leads to a judgment of an individual’s moral character (“that man is awfully rude…he has no manners at all!”).
This piece of the morality puzzle is most convincingly explained by the importance of upholding a tight alliance structure with your peers (see the exceptional research of Rob Kurzban at the University of Pennsylvania for details on this and many other bright ideas), though there is a multitude of other explanations for the existence of “arbitrary” or “taboo” morality, and there are surely more to come.
Yet I am more intrigued by those moral sentiments that exist cross-culturally – morals that don’t separate one group from another but bind them all together and constitute a “human moral sense.” New research in this realm by cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and lawyers, has begun to unearth a “universal moral grammar” that has specific neural substrates, coherent adaptive design features, and interesting correlates in centuries and centuries of human law and philosophy.
Hold on – let me rewind one sentence. In the above list of occupational investigators, the answer to the question “which of these does not belong?” seems laughably obvious.
Trust a lawyer on the structure of morality? Ha!
“A man who never graduated from school might steal from a freight car. But a man who attends college and graduates as a lawyer might steal the whole railroad.” – Teddy Roosevelt
Wisecracks aside, John Mikhail, a lawyer from Georgetown University Law Center, has one of the stronger theories of a universal human moral sense around, and also managed to get it published in a prominent cognitive science journal (Mikhail, 2007, see link for citation). “Whole railroad” indeed.
Mikhail cites Noam Chomsky as a theoretical inspiration. Noam Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory of linguistics has proven to be one of the most influential cognitive theories of the past century. In brief, his theory pushed the view that a universal set of grammatical principles exists across languages, and implies an innate, evolved sense of what constitutes a “correct sentence,” independent of the language within which it is uttered. Mikhail, inspired by Chomsky’s program, argues for a similar set of innate rules, though these are rules that apply to moral judgments rather than linguistic judgments; a “universal moral grammar.” Perhaps loosely inspired by Teddy’s quip, Mikhail uses as his prime experimental example one of the more famous (and often loathed) moral dilemmas of the modern era: “the trolley problem.”
For those not familiar with the dreaded locomotive, let me offer a brief description of a common iteration of the trolley problem, lifted straight from Mikhail:
A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people, but a bystander who is standing on a footbridge can shove a man in front of the train, saving the five people but killing the man. Is it permissible to shove the man?
Across cultures, genders, ages, and races, the result is essentially the same and has been replicated countless times: over 90% of respondents consider this act impermissible.
Theorists who believe humans naturally act in the interest of the many rather than the few surely can’t explain this result – we are not imbued with a natural Utilitarian sense of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” though we can be taught this idea. Incidentally, in many of these experiments the subjects are asked to explain their responses and find themselves lost for words, referring to their decision as illogical, irrational, and simply intuitive rather than rationally justified (Mikhail, 2007).
While there are obvious issues with trolley problem experiments – the question is too sensational, it’s an unlikely if impossible situation, there is no choice to opt out and attempt to save everyone – the ubiquity of the results and the subjects’ subsequent bewilderment and incapacity to explain their choices make it a very compelling conundrum. Furthermore, an equally persuasive result is found with what I’ll call the “switch” trolley problem:
A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people, but a bystander can pull a switch that will turn the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill only one person. Is it permissible to pull the switch?
The cross-cultural, cross-gender, cross-racial result? Around 95% consider this act permissible.
Clearly there must be a considerable difference between these two acts if one is so acceptable, the other, forbidden. Additionally, people can’t explain why one is “better” than the other besides the basic perception that the act of pushing the man just seems worse than the act of pulling the switch. Mikhail digs deeper.
He argues that when we analyze these problems we are actually parsing through a handful of structural properties of the stimulus (the stimulus being the trolley problem itself) that aren’t there on the surface and may not even enter into our consciousness at all.
He defines these substructures as means, ends, side effects, and prima facie wrongs (like battery). Here’s how it breaks down for the “push the man” problem:
Means (arranged temporally)
-touching the man [committing battery]
-throwing the man [again committing battery]
-causing train to hit man [that’s battery #3]
–preventing train from hitting men
Here, three “wrongs” (batteries) lead to one “right” (safety of five men) and another wrong (death of one man). The psychological math is not based on a “save-as-many-people-as-possible” principle, but an “avoid-committing-battery” principle. Thus, the act feels impermissible. The subject answers accordingly (I use the word “feels” because the subject cannot rationally explain their decision; it is seemingly driven by sub-conscious mechanisms, though these need not be limited to emotions).
Here’s how it breaks down for the “switch” problem:
Means (arranged temporally)
-throwing the switch
-turning the train
–preventing train from hitting men
-causing train to hit man [committing battery]
Here, the “wrongs” occur as side effects, the means appear innocuous, and the same “rightful” end is achieved. The act feels permissible.
Mikhail buffers these examples with more textured ones that involve detailed scenarios (i.e. throwing a switch that collapses a bridge above the tracks where one man is standing, thus saving the five – only one battery as a means this time) and finds that the impermissible/permissible responses end up somewhere in the middle. Actually, the math works beautifully – the more acts of battery as a means, the higher percentage of “impermissible” responses.
The next step is to figure out the neurophysiological mechanisms that underlie this complex, systematic behavior. There’s no doubt it involves both emotional and analytical brain regions. Current research supports this idea, and points to a consistent network of activation in the anterior prefrontal cortex, medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortex, dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, anterior temporal lobes, and the posterior cingulate region. This research is in its early stages, and it will be fun to watch more information emerge about the neural correlates of moral cognition.
In the end, it is the combination of three facts that make Mikhail’s universal moral grammar theory – the idea that there is an innate set of mechanisms that parse through relevant aspects of moral dilemmas – so compelling:
1) The moral judgments that trolley problems educe are rapid, confident, and described as “gut feelings” and “intuitions.”
2) The judgments are notably cross-demographical.
3) The judgments are difficult to describe and thus seem to occur beneath rational consciousness and logical reasoning.
The next big question: Mikhail refers to “prima facie wrongs” (i.e. battery) that have weight in our moral decisions. What are these wrongs and how did they wedge themselves into the natural order of the human mind? Perhaps the answer will turn out to be an aesthetic one…maybe more visceral acts (such as battery) carry extra moral weight, regardless of their outcomes and side effects? This is a mere musing, but an interesting one nonetheless.
But those are questions for another day. Now, in all seriousness, I have to go catch a trolley.
(Hopefully the city of Philadelphia has cleared the tracks of snow…and human beings).