A Thought Experiment – On Morality

Posted by on December 26, 2011 in Thoughts | 7 comments

The world we live in, as perceived by our brains, is not one of absolutes. In fact, while some things seem to be fairly certain propositions or realities, the fact that it’s all interpreted by our brains as individuals means that the way each human views our world will differ, even if only slightly. There are some fairly certain constants between people, and there are measurable and predictable outcomes when performing experiments that involve our natural world, but what it “means” is going to differ from person to person.

A question I was discussing with my friend Monica recently was this: “Is there absolute right and wrong?” A seemingly simple question, but one that once we start digging, we quickly realise that given the complex variables involved in any value judgement, what may seem to be either good or bad on the surface may actually be either a combination of both to varying degrees, or even to be the opposite.

An example from the natural world could be something like the female spider, who once she lays eggs of the next generation and they hatch, the hatchlings turn around and eat the mother as their first meal. On the surface we reel at the prospect of eating our own kind, especially our mother. In the natural world however, the death of the mother spider gives the baby spiders a fighting chance, and the death of one animal to ensure the survival of the many could be seen as a good thing. Bad for the mother, having fulfilled her purpose of passing on life, and good for the baby spiders who will go on one day to do the same thing. We can’t even begin to place a human judgement upon this although we still will.

Let’s look at something closer to home, and I’ll call this the “Damien Omen” scenario. We all tend to agree that murder is wrong. We despise it because it is the ultimate of trespasses one can make upon another human. As a general rule, all societies hold murder of another person to be wrong and bad. But what if we were given information about a person at birth which led us not only to believe but to know with a kind of certainty that his child would grow up to cause a nuclear war killing all life on earth. If we let him live, this would be the outcome. We can however prevent this from happening by killing the child now. What would be the right thing to do? What would be the good thing to do? At this early infant stage the child is indistinguishable from other babies, cooing dribbling and laughing and crying. But with this knowledge on-board, would it be right to kill the child now? Would the life of one be good to destroy in order to save all of humanity? Well in this situation I think it’s pretty clear what the right thing to do would be, but it is still wrong to kill the child? Is the very act of murdering the child good when weighed against saving the rest or the planet? Harris talks in The Moral Landscape about “The Trolley Problem“, in which participants are given a thought experiment in which they could save several people from an accident, by sacrificing the life of another individual. The usual and seemingly moral decision would to be to save many over the one, but it’s still an act of killing, and a conscious one at that. Now this is where things get really interesting.

A suicide bomber or a kamikaze pilot, hell-bent on destroying themselves and as many innocent bystanders as possible, is told by his or her superiors that the act of killing is the right thing to do, on several levels. One, the death of the infidels or aggressors will further the cause or society that the person belongs to. And secondly, the person’s death is a noble one, and act of ultimate selflessness for the cause. The flip-side of the coin is this; the bomber or pilot is committing an act of unspeakable selfishness, for not only do they both manage to kill and destroy the lives of many innocent people, but that act serves as a point of judgement against which they are held, either in the afterlife or in the minds of those who outlive them. Is it wrong then for someone who is fighting a war for something they believe in, something that they believe to be self-evidently right, to willfully kill as many people as possible, while taking their own life? The idea of martyrdom is a sticky one, for I have no doubt in my mind that the martyr, when willingly choosing to become one, has it in their minds that what they are doing is the ultimate in morality, for it helps further the cause. But when we look at this, we see evil.

Let’s just recap these examples. Firstly there’s the spider, where the life of one is willfully ended for the good of the species. Secondly, the Damien Omen scenario, where one life must be terminated to save the planet. And thirdly, the suicide bomber or kamikaze, where one life is willfully ended with the intention of causing as much damage and death as possible. To make a value judgement on the spider seems weird, the natural world is neither fair, caring, nor sentient, and so we accept the unsavoury spectacle as “the way things are”. To judge the Damien Omen scenario seems much easier, since the whole of life on earth depends upon the decision to kill this child. And it seems even easier for us to judge the suicide bomber/kamikaze pilot, as it’s a willful act of violence against “innocent” people.

See how each of these judgements is easier to determine “right” and “wrong” based on their context? Each example involves the death of one on order to save or kill many. So is murder wrong? Imagine for a moment, instead of the child in the Damien Omen scenario being able to destroy the world, this child is now the future suicide bomber, a jihadist in Afghanistan. We know with the same amount of certainty as previously that he will grow up to strap 20 sticks of dynamite to his chest and blow up a busy market one day. If we had this level of certainty, would it still be wrong to kill the child?

Let’s complicate is some more. Imagine that by pure happenstance one of the people who would die in the market explosion is a child-rapist. We know with this same level of certainty that he will be killed in the bombing, and this would prevent him from destroying the lives of dozens of innocent children. What would be the morally sound thing to do in this situation?

The problem is, we can never have this much information, we can never know with certainty what the future holds, so we have to make our decisions about the moral rights and wrongs based on what the most probable outcome is; suicide bombings are wrong, killing children is wrong, murder and rape are wrong. We know this because these acts cause misery and suffering, to which well-being is preferable. We have to continue to make moral decisions, not on doctrine or dogmatic principles of religion an politics, but on which outcome will cause the least suffering and allow the most people to flourish.

We could create thought-experiments all day long, but what it comes down to is the reality of the situations. Well-being is preferable to suffering, pleasure over pain, health over illness, but in some cases it seems that when the downfall of one innocent could mean the well-being of the many, then the morally right thing to do is what at first seems morally wrong. Context changes everything.

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  1. Your argument is very succinct and lucid.
    This is something that has always troubled me about Christianity and Islam. Their followers will happily denigrate Atheists for not having any absolute (i.e., god-given) sense of morality but I have never yet met a self-confessed fundamentalist Christian (including pacifists) or Muslim who has ever indicated they would refuse to do what they perceived as god’s will, including the murder of innocents, if they were absolutely sure god commanded it. In contrast, Atheists (including Buddhists) seem to have no difficulty in either professing that some actions are either absolutely immoral regardless of circumstance, or become moral only for the most strenuous of utilitarian purposes. It seems to me that many theists are deluding themselves about their stance on absolute morality; they do not actually accept absolute morality (or even utilitarian morality) but rather a totalitarian morality, solely dependent on the perceived wishes of their god. I find that very disturbing.

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  2. Interesting thoughts.If you are brought up to think that you are superior ,because your god is the only true god,then,what choice do you have ,if that god tell you to kill? If some of my loved ones are threatened acute on their lives ,I might be able to kill to defend them,because rational thinking will not be the first thing that comes to mind (if you’ll forgive the pun).In the first example you are brainwashed,and you can’t blame a brainwashed for being brainwashed.In the second example you are acting instinctively.Can you be blamed for that?I don’t have the answers,but I hope I will never be in such a situation.I’m Danish so my English may not be perfect.

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  3. …suicide bombings are wrong, killing children is wrong, murder and rape are wrong. We know this because these acts cause misery and suffering, to which well-being is preferable.

    Are those things wrong because they cause misery and suffering, or is the misery and suffering merely a typical effect of wrong deeds? A possible thought experiment to illustrate that difference is one in which a wrong deed causes no misery or suffering. Suppose there is a family somewhere remote, living “off the grid” in complete isolation from other people for whatever reason. Imagine that a roaming psychopath discovers them and sees an excellent opportunity to get away with murder, so he kills them all in their sleep one night. They don’t suffer, and nobody mourns their loss — or is even aware of their passing, for that matter. It’s the perfect crime. This would still seem to be evil, despite the absence of misery or suffering, don’t you think?

    Incidentally, this formulation of morality is usually called “utilitarianism”, and was promoted by the 19th century atheist John Stuart Mill.

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  4. Utilitarianism takes two main forms Positive Utilitarianism (that seeks to maximise total social happiness and paradoxically can lend support to a policy of burning babies alive) and Negative Utilitarianism (that seeks to minimise total social misery). The Negative formulation tries to avoid some of the paradoxes inherent in the positive version. The argument you advance, regarding suffering, is using this negative form and as you observe there seems to be no effect because the family are unaware of their deaths and so do not suffer and no one else is aware of the killer’s actions. However, does the calculus of suffering require that we only count the suffering that we are aware of? The aim of negative utilitarianism is to minimise all suffering per se regardless of whether or not anyone is aware of a particular “suffering incident”. Certainly the murdered family’s extinction precludes them form experiencing anymore happiness so in terms of Positive Utilitarianism the killers act is wrong.

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    • …does the calculus of suffering require that we only count the suffering that we are aware of?

      I’m not going to insist one way or the other, but I note that if you include hypothetical suffering, you harm the scientific basis of the morality by introducing speculative elements.

      Certainly the murdered family’s extinction precludes them form experiencing anymore happiness so in terms of Positive Utilitarianism the killers act is wrong.

      Isn’t it equally valid to say that it precludes them from experiencing any more misery and suffering? In terms of what we can say with certainty (well, with certainty if we grant basic atheistic assumptions), we can say that the family will no longer experience anything. In that strict sense, the murder was a morally neutral act: every other conclusion is grounded in speculation.

      I suppose we could say that death itself is an evil thing because of the fact that it robs us of future pleasures — a loss of “potential earnings”, if you like. It’s a bit imprecise, but seems reasonable given that very few people actually want to die. Still, death is hardly the worst of possibilities. Wouldn’t life imprisonment be quite likely worse than death, given the misery associated with imprisonment? How do we determine scientifically what kind of experience is worse than a permanent end to experience? It may be possible that a certain measure of what we would call misery and suffering is a net positive experience rather than a net negative. Death may be the zero point, but I see difficulty in calibrating the rest of experience around that zero, except perhaps if we make it a purely subjective evaluation — a decision which brings its own set of difficulties.

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  5. The question posed did not ask one to consider degrees of suffering or pleasure but rather to consider whether or not the act, because the victims were unaware of their demise and society was unaware of their fate, was an evil or wrong act. My point was that Negative Utilitarianism makes no mention of seeking to minimise only actual and known incidents of suffering (in fact this would be impossible because known actual suffering would be a past fact and incapable of being changed). The purpose of taking the Utilitarian position is to provide a frame of reference for future policy decisions. Regarding their future happiness or unhappiness from the perspective of the Positive Utilitarian who seeks to maximise happiness the actions of the killer are wrong because any degree of future happiness is impossible. Of course the fatal flaw, in any form of “scientific” utilitarianism is the absence of a calculus of happiness or suffering. Sorry if this response is rather sketchy but I’m a at work and trying to write in-between doing what I’m actually paid to do :-)

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    • Regarding their future happiness or unhappiness from the perspective of the Positive Utilitarian who seeks to maximise happiness the actions of the killer are wrong because any degree of future happiness is impossible.

      Perhaps. On the other hand, given that the family in question was isolationist, maybe they were also ascetics, living in austere conditions and shunning “pleasure” in general, maybe for religious reasons. Maybe the killer enjoyed killing them immensely, and will bask in the afterglow for some time to come, so it’s quite possible that “pleasure” was maximised.

      Of course the fatal flaw, in any form of “scientific” utilitarianism is the absence of a calculus of happiness or suffering.

      That’s not so much a fatal flaw as a problem to be solved — although it certainly does become a fatal flaw if the problem can’t be solved. Also, arguments such as this, as to whether a particular scenario makes utilitarianism seem abhorrent, can’t be formulated exactly without proper metrics.

      So what do we conclude? Something like, “utilitarianism as a form of science-based ethics is a potentially interesting idea; get back to us when you’ve got a mathematical model and something concrete to measure, and we’ll analyse it for flaws.”

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