Divert the Trolley, Lose the Pants, and Leave the Organ Donor Alone

From onegoodmove, here’s a pointer to an interesting piece of research on the failure of people’s religion to influence their decisions on a series of contrived moral dilemmas: Morality without religion.

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory,” “permissible,” or “forbidden.”

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ____________.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _________.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _________.

What I find especially interesting is that judging by the responses, there exists a rough working consensus as to which answers are “correct,” even among people who presumably are pretty divided on the big moral/religious issues.

2 Responses to “Divert the Trolley, Lose the Pants, and Leave the Organ Donor Alone”

  1. Flërnk Says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this subject because I am a religious conservative and former athiest.

    There are some definite lines in the sand when it comes to morality that are totally unrelated to emotional reaction. These three questions are fine and do a good job of illustrating moral judgement, but there are much more basic questions that demand a higher understanding beyond emotional response:

    What is “truth” and why is it “bad” to “lie”?

    Why do we subject ourselves to authority?

    Why is hypocrisy “bad”?

    While the original three questions can be answered relatively similarly by most everyone (probably because the situations are so absurdly exaggerated) they do nothing to define WHY we’ve answered them the way we do.

    These three seemingly simple questions could probably start an argument, but that of course is not the intent. However, the fact that they even could start an argument speaks to the fact that we are calling upon something much much more than basic human response to define the world around us. A definition of “good” and “bad” is so fundamental to our nature that we as humans have, as yet, been unable to come to anything even resembling consensus. In the end, every war, every feud, every broken friendship has been based on the principles behind these questions.

    Religious morality is nothing more than the definition of “good” and “bad”. If physics is the search for tangible truth (the sky is “blue”), religion is the search of intagible truth (anger is “evil”). Without those definitions, which go so far beyond emotion and natural selection, the human animal would never have developed to the point where we can even have this debate.

    What worries me is not whether or not we can agree on basic moral dilemmas (as the original questions illustrate), what worries me is when people (religious and non-religious) get so upset about other people’s minor definitions of “good” and “bad” that we forget how very alike we all are.

  2. Steve Says:

    Wow, I came back to comment on this item, but found that Flernk has already said everything that I would have. Thanks Flernk.

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