By Victoria Velasco
The train problem consists of two scenarios. In the first, one must pull a lever to direct a moving train away from five people and toward one person, and in the second, one must push a person under a train, thereby stopping it in time to save five people. In a wide survey, many people regarded the option in the first scenario to be ethical, however, an overwhelming number of subjects strongly dissented the morality of the second scenario, yet they were unable to articulate the ethical difference from the first scenario (Hauser, Cushman & Young, 1997). In both situations one is asked to harm one for the good of the community. The sources of this inconsistency are, according to a recent article by Steven Pinker, universal morals.
In a recent study, fMRI’s monitored brain activity when subjects were presented with the “train problem” (Greene, 2001). In all subjects considering the first scenario, only the area of the frontal lobes linked to logic, showed any signs of excessive activity. However, when presented with the second scenario, the medial area of the frontal lobes, linked to interpersonal emotions, as well as that linked to logic and the anterior cingulate cortex, which registers conflicts between different urges. These findings, as well as those of the previous study illustrate moral battle between emotions and logic, and the universal victory of emotions.
Another experiment on universal morality focused on Rhesus monkeys illustrates the sense of community and avoidance of harm of community members (Masserman, 1964). Operator monkeys were trained to pull a chain to receive food, and another chain when signaled with a red and blue light, respectively, however on the fourth day of the experiment, the monkeys were paired, and when the operator monkey pulled the chains, the other would receive a shock. Two-thirds of the monkeys showed discretion in pulling the chains, especially after receiving the shocks, and if they had previous interaction with their pair, and many of the monkeys even avoided pulling the chains to feed themselves.
The ubiquity of the cerebral response to wrongdoing suggests some evolutionary benefit to morality. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham argued that all evolutionary morals fit into five broad categories: avoidance of harm, fairness, a sense of community, respect for authority, and purity (Haidt, & Graham 2006). Although these are distinct human ideals, they are also represented in animals, illustrating evolutionary benefits. The experiment on Rhesus Monkeys (Masserman, Wechkin & Terris, 1964) reflects avoidance of harm; the hierarchy of dominance reflects respect for authority; animal communities inherently reflect an emphasis on fairness and reciprocation, and avoidance of certain foods reflects the importance of purity,
This new concept of a universal and unwritten moral code could lead to major changes in the ways social interactions and ethics are studied. With further exploration, these universal morals could prove to be the foundations of anything from someone holding a door open for another to the world’s major religions. Perhaps in time, we will be able to better understand the motivations behind our instinctual moral responses.
Greene, J. D., & Cohen, J.D. (2001, September) “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment.” Science Magazine.
Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2006) “Planet of the durkheimians, where community, authority, and sacredness are foundations of morality.” Social Science Research Network.
Hauser, M., Cushman F., & Young, L. (1997)”A Disossiacion Between Moral Judgements and Justifications.” Mind and Language 22
Masserman, J.H., Wechkin, S., & Terris, W. (1964) “’Altruistic’ Behavior in Rhesus Monkeys.” American Journal of Psychiatry Dec. 1964: 584-85.
Pinker, S. (2008, January 13) “The Moral Instinct” New York Times Magazine Jan. 2008. retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?_r=1