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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Would YOU shove a fat man off a trestle to save five people?

In this 2006 New York Times article, Nicholas Wade profiles this "evolutionary theory of right and wrong":
Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind.

People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously.

Here is a dilemma that is claimed to illustrate the "hardwiring" of morality:
Suppose you are standing by a railroad track. Ahead, in a deep cutting from which no escape is possible, five people are walking on the track. You hear a train approaching. Beside you is a lever with which you can switch the train to a sidetrack. One person is walking on the sidetrack. Is it O.K. to pull the lever and save the five people, though one will die?

Most people say it is.

Assume now you are on a bridge overlooking the track. Ahead, five people on the track are at risk. You can save them by throwing down a heavy object into the path of the approaching train. One is available beside you, in the form of a fat man. Is it O.K. to push him to save the five?

Most people say no, although lives saved and lost are the same as in the first problem.

Dr. Hauser hypothesizes that some hardwired evolutionary mechanism explains why we find a foreseen harm (first situation) more acceptable than an intended harm (second situation) "despite the fact that the consequences are the same in either case."

Like all evolutionary psychologists, he starts with the assumption that no one uses their minds today in real time to think out ethical problems. Rather, the mind is an illusion generated by the hardwiring of neurons by genes. (Otherwise, evolutionary psychology, as practiced today, would be a pointless exercise.)

Now, if we set that basic assumption aside, what do we see? Obviously, most human beings will perceive a very great difference between throwing to his death someone who was not even at risk but for one's own sudden decision to put him there, versus choosing that one person should die rather than five, when all are actually on the tracks.

Obvious point: If someone other than the people on the track was going to die, why not me instead of the fat man? If I am going to play God, I better start with myself, right?

The fact that almost all moral traditions would underline such a distinction and make such a point does not require genes, hardwiring, or evolution to explain. Normal human experience in real time suffices. (But in saying so, I assume that the mind really exists and is really thinking.)

Two exceptions might be if the person standing beside the switch operator was (1) considered to be of low social status or (2) was a willing volunteer. Again, I would not advise looking for a gene that explains how these social calculations are made. The role of the gene is to help create the brain that is capable of calculation, for good or ill, not to program it to arrive at one calculation rather than another.

Overall, what makes me uncomfortable about evolutionary psychology is its practioners' constant need to come up with odd situations that unidentified hardwiring and genes are supposed to "explain". That suggests that it is not really a discipline. As I have noted earlier, there certainly are features of general human psychology and behaviour that can be attributed to evolution:
For example, the disproportionate tendency of humans to be right-handed rather than left-handed probably explains why so many languages associate the right side with things that are right or dexterous and the left side with things that are sinister or gauche or - if you like - left behind.

But the problem for the evolutionary psychologist is that these features are not particularly cool or transgressive, nor do they confer any special importance on the evolutionary psychologist and his discipline - they are just the outcomes of having evolved in a certain way, having noticed that fact, and acting on it.

Who doubts that if most humans were left-handed, "sinister" and "gauche" (= left-handed) would be terms of praise rather than blame, and social rules about the right hand and the left hand would all be reversed?

Note: Blogging may be spotty for a few days because I will be teaching at Write! Canada and I have just been apprised that I have 19 students, as of last count, in Freelance Survival 101, or whatever we are calling it this year. So I must prepare, prepare, prepare. I will likely blog, but probably only one entry at a time rather than five at once. Meanwhile, slainte and l'chaim and salaam and all that to all readers!

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