Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Switch and push order effects in moral judgments: An experimental philosophy quandary

You may be familiar with the trolley problem. If not here are two variations and you should pick at random which order to read them in--in other words, you might want to read them in the order I present them or you may want to read the second one before the first one, so pick an order at random and then start reading.

A runaway trolley is about to pass you on a railroad. You are at a railroad switch. If you do nothing, the trolley will proceed along line A and kill five people. If you activate the switch, the trolley will be diverted to line B and kill one person. Will you activate the switch?

A runaway is about to pass below you, while you stand atop a small cliff. There is a fat man standing next to you. If you do nothing, the trolley will proceed along line A and kill five people. If you push the fat man onto the track, he will be killed, but his body will stop the trolley, thus preventing the deaths of the five people. Will you push him?

Philosophers have been using these questions for years, but recently they've discovered that your answers to these questions actually depend on the order in which you read them. Why? Because the answers to the switch scenario are less stable, and they ascend or descend depending on what came before. But answers to push are quite stable. Psychologists (and now philosophers too) call these order effects, because the order in which you ask the questions changes the results. Eric Schwitzgebel has an enlightening blog post about this problem and its implications.

This is an even worse conundrum for psychologists, who are ultimately trying to study moral choices in the real world. In the real world, there are an infinite number of possible precedents to moral scenarios. And in the real world, you're not dealing with fictitious scenarios but real ones, so the realism may aggravate or ameliorate the effect too.



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Blogger Krish said...

I don't know anything about philosophy. But I read this trolley problem before.I have a question. How philosophers can study about moral choices in the real world using such a problem which has infinitesimal chance of occurrence in the real world? Just curious.

1:53 PM  

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