why human morality is a tricky calculus…

March 20, 2012

We’ve already seen the scope-severity paradox, the tendency of humans to lose track of the heinousness of a crime when the numbers of those affected by it are high enough, which explains why millions are outraged when a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain shoots and kills a harmless teenager in his zeal, while a continuing genocide in Sudan wasn’t mentioned in the news until Clooney’s arrest. Basically, when a million people are affected by systematic crime, we start tuning out because we can’t visualize the scale of what they experience and muster up the appropriate empathy. But when we can imagine how someone would feel in a situation we can readily understand, our empathy kicks in. So, asked a team of psychologists, what about the way we process and react to violence? Is there a point where we also tune out, even when we actually have to be violent? As it turns out, there is a point where we do abstract death and violence but it only happens when we don’t have to be directly involved and can harm by proxy, while simulating or contemplating a violent act in person seems to produce a very powerful physiological revulsion to the idea of harming a fellow human.

One of the most compelling simulations of violence in the research involves an experiment in which subjects discharged a real, but unloaded gun into a researcher’s face. As you can imagine, their stress levels went sky high during the ordeal because they obviously didn’t want to shoot the researcher or be responsible for some sort of accident in which they kill someone. In the less extreme scenarios, the subjects also showed intense physical discomfort to violence. In fact, the only way they felt more at ease with a violent action was when they were given tools to distance themselves form face to face violence. Their results were consistent with classic morality thought experiments which revolve around a scenario involving a runaway train and six people out of which one could be sacrificed so the other five can live. In a setup in which the sacrificial lamb was simply an innocent bystander who could be pushed in the way of the train to save five people, 90% of subjects found the pushing to be unacceptable, even with the lives of five others on the line. But when the sacrificial human was in an alternative path to which the subjects could divert a train with a lever, almost 95% of the subject found it morally palatable to pull the level and kill him to save the others. In both cases, the concept and outcome are the same. The only difference is a means to distance oneself from getting one’s hands bloody.

And as odd as it may seem, I think that these findings can mesh with a much darker experiment which found that we can be persuaded to harm each other for cash. You would think that harming someone for a bonus would be contrary to our supposedly nice nature, but the simulated shocks were performed remotely, viewed via a closed circuit TV, and encouraged by the researchers. Were the subjects in that study be told to shock a person right in front of them, it’s likely that the outcome would be very different. Were the subjects deciding on whether to sacrifice a bystander to a runaway train told that there’s money for them in doing so, or that they will actually be using a convicted child molester or a wanted serial killer as a makeshift brake to save five people, it would be a safe bet that far, far more people would find the sacrifice more than acceptable if not outright an inherently moral course of action. And what if this hypothetical person to be sacrificed is portrayed as being a very depressed, borderline suicidal drug addict or alcoholic who came to the tracks to think about ending it all that night? What kind of interesting results and discussions would that thought experiment produce? I’ll bet a great deal of data and subjects’ options that would make for every interesting reading and debate.

These studies are terrific starting points to flesh out the intermediate steps between mindless acts we could classify as good or evil, and abstract human cognition that shapes what we consider to be moral and we can go even further with them because the complex questions they raise and the similarities they have point to an encouragingly consistent set of conclusions. For example, in the mercenary study, subjects who watched the simulated victims twitch from their shocks backed off, just like the would-be saviors in the morality experiment refused to agree to push someone in front of a train if they had to do it themselves and watch a person die by their hand. Meanwhile, both showed their willingness to inflict more harm on others when they didn’t have any contact with their victims and had a convenient proxy nearby. Overall it seems that we are not inherently violent and have a physical resistance to harming others. But give us incentives or what we think are valid reasons to harm others and a proxy by which to do it, we’ll justify our actions while meting out misery and woe. Put us in a position where our power is unchecked and we can easily abuse it with dire consequences, and when we are in a position in which we must harm others under duress, we’ll comply far more than we would want to admit to ourselves, much less to others. This is why we often don’t care to think about studies into our morality…

See: Cushman, F., Gray, K., Gaffey, A., Mendes, W. (2012). Simulating murder: the aversion to harmful action. Emotion, 12 (1), 2-7 DOI: 10.1037/a0025071

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  • Bruce Coulson

    The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.

    Josef Stalin.