by David Dobbs
September 15, 2010
Here is an excerpt:
Researchers generally use these (trolley) scenarios to see whether people hold a) an absolutist or so-called “deontological” moral code or b) a utilitarian or “consequentialist” moral code. In an absolutist code, an act’s morality virtually never depends on context or secondary consequences. A utilitarian code allows that an act’s morality can depend on context and secondary consequences, such as whether taking one life can save two or three or a thousand.
In most studies, people start out insisting they have absolute codes. But when researchers tweak the settings, many people decide morality is relative after all: Propose, for instance, that the fat man is known to be dying, or was contemplating jumping off the bridge anyway — and the passengers are all children — and for some people, that makes it different. Or the guy is a murderer and the passengers nuns. In other scenarios the man might be slipping, and will fall and die if you don’t grab him: Do you save him … even if it means all those kids will die? By tweaking these settings, researchers can squeeze an absolutist pretty hard, but they usually find a mix of absolutists and consequentialists.
As a grad student, Pizarro liked trolleyology. Yet it struck him that these studies, in their targeting of an absolutist versus consequentialist spectrum, seemed to assume that most people would hold firm to their particular spots on that spectrum — that individuals generally held a roughly consistent moral compass. The compass needle might wobble, but it would generally point in the same direction.
Pizarro wasn’t so sure. He suspected we might be more fickle. That perhaps we act first and scramble for morality afterward, or something along those lines, and that we choose our rule set according to how well it fits our desires.
The entire blog post is here.