Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality


Squaring recent research suggesting we’re “naturally moral” with all the strife in the world

Occasionally, very occasionally, you will happen upon a piece of writing that “says it all”.  We would like to introduce you to a piece to be published in next month’s The Atlantic magazine.  We have been kindly allowed to reproduce the first three paragraphs, but we hope you will take the opportunity to read the full article by following the link given underneath.  We believe you will find it worthwhile.

In 1999, Joshua Greene—then a philosophy graduate student at Princeton, now a psychology professor at Harvard—had a very fertile idea. He took a pretty well-known philosophical thought experiment and infused it with technology in a way that turned it into a very well-known philosophical thought experiment—easily the best-known, most-pondered such mental exercise of our time. In the process, he raised doubts, in inescapably vivid form, about the rationality of human moral judgment.

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

[This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic.  To read the full article click here]

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