I Would Not Throw the Fat Man Off the Bridge and onto the Trolley Tracks
Our whole family sat around the television watching the concluding episode of The Fugitive. We each guessed who we thought had done the murder that the fugitive had spent so long pursuing while avoiding the law. Toward the end of the show, right before the commercial break, one of the characters indicated he had a confession to make. We kids took that immediately to mean that he was the killer. But my parents said not to be so sure. And in fact the confession was just that he had seen who had done the murder and never reported it, not done it himself.
Similarly, there was an episode in The Rifleman where a fellow comes to town who seems like a nice fellow, befriends the rifleman’s son and his friends, and when there was trouble we kids couldn’t imagine this nice guy being the culprit. But our parents saw what we didn’t, either because they knew the character, or they knew how TV shows played out.
In both cases we kids jumped on the direct path; our parents were more circumspect. Joshua Greene explores something similar in Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, where he discusses what he has come to call the modular myopia hypothesis. He calls it “the most complicated single idea that I will present in this book,” meaning that I don’t fully grasp it, and my retelling will be even more incomplete. Nonetheless, I see something in our political discussions which reflects this hypothesis, and often seems linked with the law of unintended consequences.
Greene’s hypothesis starts with findings he calls the dual-process theory of moral judgement. Based on results from subjects in a variety of experiments revolving around the footbridge case (would you throw the fat man off the footbridge onto the trolley tracks below to stop the trolley if you knew it would save the lives of five others who are on the tracks and would otherwise be run over), and the switch case (would you switch to trolley to a different track where it would run over the fat man on the tracks rather than continue on the current track and run over the five people there). Most of us recoil at physically throwing the fat man off the bridge, but generally agree to pulling the track switch. Greene ties this dual-process theory to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which posits two tracks of thinking, a more automatic response, the fast path, and a more deliberative response, the slow path. Greene posits that we have a fast path which causes us to recoil at physically throwing the fat man from the bridge to his death, even though it would save five; but that when this fast path doesn’t provide a visceral response, as in the case of pulling the switch, we think more deliberatively and weigh the lives of five against the lives of one and respond accordingly. This deliberative thinking allows us to respond in a more utilitarian fashion, regarding five lives as more important than one.
The myopic module that Greene suggests is an automatic response which has been developed over evolutionary time to counter our tendency to violence, so that we can live together in society without killing each other. Pushing the fat man off the bridge triggers this repulsion to violence, and keeps us from accepting it as a reasonable reaction, even if it saves five at the expense of one. The module is myopic because it is heuristic, triggering on cues that stand-in for real violence. It is myopic because it can be triggered when it really shouldn’t be, for instance when subjecting people to simulated violence even when they know it isn’t real. Greene conducted a series of experiments to show just this result, giving credence to his hypothesis and use of the term ‘myopic’.
Greene calls on work by John Mikhail, who extends proposals from Alvin Goldman and Michael Bratman. In these theories, every action has a primary chain, or trunk, and zero or more secondary chains, or side effects. As he explains, “The primary chain consists of the sequence of events that are causally necessary for the achievement of the goal.” In the footbridge case, the action is pushing the fat man onto the tracks which stops the trolley and achieves the goal of saving the five. That action is on the primary chain, and triggers our modular myopic response. In the switch case, the switching is the action which diverts the train and saves the five; the killing of the fat man is a side effect, on a secondary chain, and doesn’t trigger the modular myopic reaction, which is why most people are comfortable with it. As Greene further explains, we recoil at pushing the fat man off the bridge because he becomes the means; in the switch case killing him is ‘merely’ a side effect. Devising ever more targeted experiments, Greene came upon one he calls the loop case which seems to fit the pattern of the footbridge where the fat man is used as the means to stop the trolley (he is on a loop, if he weren’t there the train would continue back to the main track and kill the five), but subjects don’t recoil at the action. Greene sees this as evidence of the applicability of Mikhail’s theories to moral judgement. What he posits is that the loop case involves more multiple causal chains, and our automatic judgement is too ‘myopic’ to be up to the task, and so doesn’t kick in with revulsion at the idea of using the fat man as the means to save the five.
When we children were watching The Fugitive and The Rifleman, the immaturity of our brains and the paucity of our life experiences forced us to deal only with the primary path response, unable to take in secondary and more nuanced paths. This seems analogous to what Greene considers in the context of moral psychology. Moreover, it seems related to political decisions we make. If I raise taxes, revenue will increase (ignoring the secondary path where the economy suffers from individuals having less money to spend); if I have a gun, I can better protect my family from intruders (ignoring the secondary path of the dangers of accidental deaths from firearms around the house). In Anti-Obamacare ads backfire: How right-wing TV attacks may have helped ACA, Simon Maloy sees evidence that all of the anti-Obamacare attacks not only increased awareness of the act and may have led more people to enroll, but by convincing people that Obamacare was doomed, may have encouraged people to buy now before the benefit goes away. The creators of the ads only saw the primary path, not the multitude of secondary paths and how they might influence people’s actions. Elias Isquith thinks the religious right’s enthusiasm for the Hobby Lobby precedent and their hope to use it to extend discrimination against the LGBT community will boomerang on them. Having failed at getting laws passed in legislatures in Kansas, Idaho, Mississippi, and Arizona, they see hope in implementing them by judicial fiat. As they might say, “I see before me the direct path by which I will enable our society to discriminate against LGBT people in the name of religious freedom, and I’m going to pursue it.” But Isquith thinks the alternate chains they aren’t seeing will cause many Americans to think of “religious liberty” as mere dog whistle for discrimination, and turn against the notion of religious liberty itself. Perhaps I’m taking Greene’s work (and that of Mikhail and those who preceded him) as too much of a metaphor, but it seems to me there’s more to explore here.
Much has been made of how little rational we truly are. Dan Ariely has written Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Daniel Kahneman has shown how subject we are to fast thinking, and George Lakoff relates how we don’t respond to reason when considering political choices. This can lead to a rather pessimistic view of humans and our potential. However, there are several counter trends. Joshua Greene shows that we can turn our deliberative thinking on, apply it to moral choices, and create a more utilitarian society, where more benefits flow to more people. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature details the decline of violence over time, and associates at least some of it with education and our ability to think at a higher level of abstraction and apply reason to our lives, much like recognizing the secondary chains in our potential actions. And the whole American Experiment is based on a nation born of ideas and of reason, unlike any that preceded it, as historian Gordon Wood delineates in his numerous books. And so far it has turned out pretty well.