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By Eric Schwitzgebel: Moral Reasoning (or the lack thereof?)

Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside, writes a blog called The Splintered Mind. His latest post is about how people do moral reasoning and how that reasoning is affected by seemingly irrelevant things. His findings, even among professional Philosophers, may suprise you....

People's responses to hypothetical moral scenarios can vary substantially depending on the order in which those scenarios are presented (e.g., 
Lombrozo 2009). Consider the well-known "Switch" and "Push" versions of The Trolley Problem. In the Switch version, an out-of-control boxcar is headed toward five people whom it will kill if nothing is done. You're standing by a railroad switch, and you can divert the boxcar onto a side-track, saving the five people. However, there's one person on the side-track, who would then be killed. Many respondents will say that there's nothing morally wrong with flipping the switch, killing the one to save the five. Some will even say that you're morally obliged to flip the switch. In the Push version, instead of being able to save the five by flipping a switch, you can do so by pushing a heavy man into the path of the boxcar, killing him but saving the five as his weight slows the boxcar. Despite the surface similarity to the Switch case, most people think it's not okay to push the man.

Here's the order effect: If you present the Push case first, people are much less likely to say it's okay to flip the switch when you then later present the Switch case than if you present the Switch case first.

To see how Philosophers fare, please continue reading the entire thing here: 

The Instability of Professional Philosophers' Endorsement of the Fa...

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Comment by Tim Gier on March 27, 2012 at 23:03

One thought is that it is because ethicists are aware of the underlying questions that the order matters more to them. What Schwitzgebel supposes is that rather than the abstract principles not figuring in to the ethicists thinking (as abstract principles presumably don't figure in to the thinking of people who've never thought about these scenarios), the abstract principles aren't as important to ethicists as are their abilities, derived from their training and skills, to engage in post-hoc rationalizations of what they want to believe in the first place.

Comment by Susan Cho on March 27, 2012 at 6:30

Oh, I don't doubt that ethicists do the cognitive dissonance dance as well as anyone.  It's just that since they have undoubtedly already spent time discussing the trolley problem, I don't see how the order of presentation should matter for them.  They already know both questions, so it's as if you're presenting both questions at the same time, not sequentially, as in the experiment.  The order effect should be the most significant if you don't know what the subsequent questions are, right?

Comment by Tim Gier on March 24, 2012 at 12:07

Thanks Susan. In that article, Kristof mentions the work of Jonathan Haidt. Haidt wrote a very interesting paper in 2001 (The Emotional Dog and it's Rational Tail. A copy can be requested at his webite: in which he explains his study of how most people reach decisions on moral issues. In a nutshell (and as the title of the paper alludes) most people believe those moral principles that feel right to them, and then they find rational arguments to justify those beliefs. Interestingly, Nietzsche said much the same thing about 130 years ago. There's plenty of research data to support Haidt's general thesis. Schwitzgebelfor his part, has been studying the attitudes and beliefs of philosophers, particularly those who are teaching and writing about Ethics, to try to determine whether the knowledge of ethics those people presumably have makes any noticeable difference in the way they act in the world. The answer is, generally, no. 

What I conclude from all of this is that having knowledge of "right and wrong" has little bearing on actually doing right as opposed to wrong, no matter who the person happens to be. Rather, I believe that most of us, most of the time, are quite content to live with cognitive dissonance, rationalize inconsistencies and excuse in ourselves behaviors that we would not excuse in others. I also believe that most people do not respond well to arguments that oppose their own pre-existing beliefs, except to deny those arguments. However, that doesn't mean that presenting a well-reasoned argument for one's own position is useless as a tool to change other people's minds. But it does mean that it's not a very effective one. 

I suppose (to answer Roger's question) that the problem in the movement for other animals is not so much that we don't know what does work. No, the problem is that we are committed to a program that very good evidence suggests doesn't work! "The movement" wants it to be the case that if we just present a good argument for why people ought not to use, harm and kill other animals that one day people will hear and understand that argument and then we will have (something close to a) vegan world.  I doubt that it will ever happen that way and, other than making ourselves feel good by letting other people know how much we care about other animals, we're pretty much just spitting into the wind.

Comment by Susan Cho on March 23, 2012 at 10:36

This article says that the books most often stolen from libraries are the ones on ethics.

NYT Op-ed: Politics, Odors and Soap

Comment by Susan Cho on March 11, 2012 at 4:37

I cannot wrap my head around the idea that professional philosophers would show an order effect for such elementary scenarios as the ones used.  The scenarios were specifically chosen b/c they are famous, so wouldn't everyone have already decided their answers?? 


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