People apply principles inconsistently, study finds

Oct 08, 2010 By George Lowery

Is it morally appropriate to sacrifice the life of an innocent person to save the lives of several others? David Pizarro, Cornell assistant professor of psychology, put a fresh spin on this classic question from philosophy.

In an update to the classic "footbridge" scenario in moral philosophy, which asks if it is morally appropriate to throw an innocent bystander to his death to stop an oncoming trolley that would kill a group of individuals, Pizarro and his colleagues asked California undergraduates whether it would be morally appropriate to sacrifice "Tyrone Payton" (presumably black) to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic or "Chip Ellsworth III" (presumably white) to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra.

What Pizarro and his colleagues hoped to learn was whether people were consistent in their application of moral principles (such as the principle that it is wrong to kill innocent people regardless of the consequences) or whether their gut reactions to the names would lead them to endorse different principles across the two scenarios. Figuring that conservatives and liberals might have different reactions to the names, they also assessed the political orientation of their participants.

In the October 2009 issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, Pizarro and colleagues report the results of this and four other studies that provide evidence that individuals are quite inconsistent in their application of moral principles. Rather, they select whichever principle is most consistent with their initial reaction to the description of the individual being sacrificed.

Pizarro's study found that self-identified liberals presented with these dilemmas were more likely judge that it was morally appropriate to send Chip to the great beyond, while conservatives were more likely to judge it morally appropriate to end Tyrone's life. "Despite explicitly stating that race shouldn't play a role in these (which our participants do overwhelmingly), from the results it is clear that conservatives and liberals value the life of these individuals quite differently, and that they will defend this judgment with whichever principle suits their needs best," Pizarro said.

Do these results demonstrate racism on the part of conservatives? "When looking across our studies at how individuals responded when asked about moral principles, the largest difference we found was that liberals were more likely to say it was morally appropriate to sacrifice an innocent person for the sake of a greater good if the person sacrificed was named Chip, but not if the person was named Tyrone," Pizarro said.

These studies have received attention from popular science blogs (the phrase "Kill Whitey" appeared in several headlines). Pizarro thinks that neither side of the political spectrum should be too happy with the results. "Our studies show that there's enough inconsistency and bias on both political sides to go around," he said.

But one finding holds true in these studies, regardless of partisan leanings. "Although we believe and speak about moral principles as universal, our judgments demonstrate that we are content with applying whichever one fits the bill," Pizarro said. "What we really mean is: This is universal and absolute when I want it to be and not when I don't want it to be."

Despite the moral flip-flopping documented in these studies, Pizarro remains optimistic about the human capacity to make rational judgments. He points to one study demonstrating that when participants were given both versions of the scenario they remained consistent, responding to the second scenario the same as the first, regardless of race. "I think studies like ours can motivate people to be more aware of the irrationality often present in their own judgments and, we hope, to become more rational."

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Eikka
5 / 5 (7) Oct 08, 2010
I hate these false dichotomies where you have to choose between two morally wrong options and judge which one of them is less wrong.

If I had to throw a person in front of a train to save a hundred, it would invariably be me, because I couldn't live with myself having deliberately murdered someone else.
DamienS
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 08, 2010
I don't think this is a question of morality at all. As a great man once said - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Unless the few are your immediate family and/or friends! If one had to make a dispassionate decision, one would likely choose a lesser loss of life over a larger loss. However when one knows the people involved, the equation tilts in their favour, unless perhaps if there is an overwhelming threshold, like a million to one. In any case, I wouldn't bring morality into it (it's got too many religious overtones) - it's just what you can live with.
axemaster
1.5 / 5 (4) Oct 08, 2010
Hmmm... as a fairly liberal person, I would say this probably doesn't indicate any "real" racism on the part of liberals... Many liberals are very non-racist, so I would guess that they were unconsciously over compensating in making sure not to go against the black guy, and as a result accidentally appeared biased against the white guy. Kinda funny, but there's no reason to see it in a negative light.

On the other hand, conservatives, who -generally- are biased against "foreign" sounding names would tend to go against the black guy. But again, not necessarily indicative of racism against black people per se.

I dunno. What is racism, exactly?

If I had to throw a person in front of a train to save a hundred, it would invariably be me, because I couldn't live with myself having deliberately murdered someone else.


On the other hand, would you be willing to kill a terrorist who was planning to kill 100 people? It really is a slippery slope.
marjon
3.6 / 5 (10) Oct 08, 2010
"Do these results demonstrate racism on the part of conservatives? "
The 'liberal' choice was equally racist.
Eikka
4.3 / 5 (9) Oct 08, 2010
There's quite a big difference between a murderous terrorist and an innocent bystander.
DamienS
3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 08, 2010
I dunno. What is racism, exactly?

An irrational fear, loathing or ridicule of others perceived not be in your group (however you choose to define your group membership - race, skin color, religion, social customs, language, physical characteristics).
moj85
not rated yet Oct 08, 2010
The setup of this experiment is ambiguous. Were the people being asked only ONE of the situations? Both? Could they only choose one of the two outcomes?
1) Liberals chose 'Chip' to die over 'Tyrone', meaning if asked whether Tyrone should be sacrificed, they said no, but not vice versa? Or 2) does it mean that between the two options, they would rather chip die to save the jazz orchestra _over_ tyrone die to save the philharmonic?
danman5000
not rated yet Oct 08, 2010
The name should have been Tyrone Biggums.
freethinking
1 / 5 (6) Oct 08, 2010
How about would you sacrifice yourself to save 100 people of a different skin color (I use skin color not race), how about if those 100 people all had downs syndrome, or were all 100 years old, or 1 year old?

With a study using this setup my hypothesis would be that conservatives would sacrific themselves at a higher rate than liberals, because on of the principle conservatives hold is that all people are of equal worth, while liberals (especailly the more progressive of liberals) hold that different people have different value.
otto1932
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 08, 2010
Ah, a topic for the weekend. Where are all the pro-life, anti-humanist, pro-god, anti-everything else pinheads? At friday prayers?

Is it morally appropriate to offer abortion which invariably involves poor, uneducated minorities more than affluent, educated whites? Is this an intrinsically racist solution to population control or only the judicious expression of Applied demographics? Is there another way to effectively limit overall pop growth during this period of global crisis? (no)
otto1932
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 08, 2010
How about if Tyrone was played by eddie murphy and chip was played by Dan Aykroyd?
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2010
How about would you sacrifice yourself to save 100 people of a different skin color (I use skin color not race), how about if those 100 people all had downs syndrome, or were all 100 years old, or 1 year old?

With a study using this setup my hypothesis would be that conservatives would sacrific themselves at a higher rate than liberals, because on of the principle conservatives hold is that all people are of equal worth, while liberals (especailly the more progressive of liberals) hold that different people have different value.
I'd strongly recommend you actually do this survey. It would be interesting to see the result.

A simple two line questionaire is all that's needed and you could simply send it out to a large group.

1. Do you identify as a conservative ro a liberal?
2.

As long as you don't have a selection bias, you should gain some interesting results.
freethinking
1 / 5 (4) Oct 08, 2010
SH - Would you like to add a third category? Liberal, Conservative, Progressive?
otto1932
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2010
QC, FT, bitchslapping is not really a proper form of genteel debate now is it? If you have something to say, say it. Otherwise I shall be forced to respond in kind, mutually assured bitchslaption, which is after all no way to win anything.

oop too late
Quantum_Conundrum
2.8 / 5 (10) Oct 08, 2010
I don't think that there are any grounds for claiming that a person has a moral obligation to sacrifice themself to save a stranger.

Even if you could concoct a scenario where one person was guaranteed to save 100 if they allowed themself to be killed (a scenario that is hard to even imagine,) I don't necessarily say that the one person would be obligated to play that part.

If I'm going to sacrifice my life to save someone else, I should have a right to choose who that someone is.

Yes, I'd be more likely to sacrifice my life to save a friend or family member who I know, as compared to a stranger. For all I know, the stranger could be a rapist or murderer or something like that.

If there is a bus of 50 average kids beside a bus of 50 invalids, and only time to save one bus load, I will save the average ones every time.

I don't know what moral basis anyone would have to criticize that decision. If all are equal, there is no wrong choice. Pick the healthiest to live.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2010
SH - Would you like to add a third category? Liberal, Conservative, Progressive?
Progressives exist in both prior general categories. Still waiting for you to define the term here: http://www.physor...639.html
Skeptic_Heretic
3.9 / 5 (7) Oct 08, 2010
Yes, I'd be more likely to sacrifice my life to save a friend or family member who I know, as compared to a stranger. For all I know, the stranger could be a rapist or murderer or something like that.
He could also be the doctor who would live on to cure cancer. Interesting how you immediately equate non-familiar with hostile or socially reprehensible.
I don't know what moral basis anyone would have to criticize that decision. If all are equal, there is no wrong choice. Pick the healthiest to live.
If we're all equal, there is no one that is healthier than another. Your hypothetical is impossible.
Javinator
5 / 5 (7) Oct 08, 2010
With a study using this setup my hypothesis would be that conservatives would sacrific themselves at a higher rate than liberals, because on of the principle conservatives hold is that all people are of equal worth, while liberals (especailly the more progressive of liberals) hold that different people have different value.


Nice generalizations.

Too bad you repeatedly show that you believe that conservatives (and thus you) are superior (and thus not qeual) to progressives/liberals. It's ok though. I won't assume all conservatives feel that way. Just you.
freethinking
1 / 5 (7) Oct 08, 2010
Javinator, remember I used the word hypothesis. Look it up, it is a guess to be proved.

BTW, progressives have a different view of whats moral. Below is a clip from one from Britian

http://www.youtub...bedded#!

Since to progressives old people, and Downs people, and young people are nothing more than a clump of cells. I expect them to view their life as less important.

Since conservatives are pro-life, viewing all human even those in the womb as human, I would expect them to view those lives as equal.
GregHight
4.8 / 5 (5) Oct 09, 2010
As an atheist conservative, I really hate that people assume that I believe in god or any other religious dogma. The bible thumping moralist are just one segment of conservatives and they have little to do with the ideals of small government,individualism and constitutionalism.

I'm not pro life as I am all for assisted suicide and not wasting tax dollars to "warehouse" people when they are too old to feed themselves. That money would be better off in the pockets of those who earned it.

Suspicion of outsiders or "those that don't look like our tribe", is natural and has served humans for eons. It's only a problem now that we have so many "tribes" living side by side in modern society. It's not evil, it's just nature.
RobertKarlStonjek
4.7 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2010
If you throw an innocent person off a bridge to their death the law states that you have committed murder and will try you for it. There is no way to prove that the death of that person prevented the deaths of others ~ the court will assume that it was your conjecture and ask how on Earth you could have been so sure that the deaths of a hundred people would have followed...are you a brilliant engineer? Where are your calculations showing the inevitable outcome??

If that was acceptable, why isn't a Tarot card reader's murder of a baby they were sure would grow up to be another Hitler not also acceptable??
Skeptic_Heretic
3.8 / 5 (4) Oct 09, 2010
Javinator, remember I used the word hypothesis. Look it up, it is a guess to be proved.
It's not a guess to be proved.

A hypothesis is a statement which has no empirical justification. In short, a belief without evidence.
Since to progressives old people, and Downs people, and young people are nothing more than a clump of cells. I expect them to view their life as less important.
You'd be quite wrong. Since life and knowledge is a collaborative experience we value the experience of the elderly, we recognize the absolute value of existence. Since most of us view life through the eyes of evolution and abiogenesis, we recognize that effectively each of us has won the lottery, and do not make the determination of death for others. We also recognize the will of an individual to attempt to increase their wealth of experience in life.

Besides, it's the conservative states that retain a death penalty.
marjon
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 09, 2010
A hypothesis is a statement which has no empirical justification. In short, a belief without evidence.

That is false.
we recognize the absolute value of existence.

But not the inherent right to exist?
Skeptic_Heretic
3.4 / 5 (5) Oct 09, 2010
A hypothesis is a statement which has no empirical justification. In short, a belief without evidence.

That is false.
So someone who distrusts all of science is going to tell a scientist what a scientific hypothesis is?
we recognize the absolute value of existence.
But not the inherent right to exist?
Explain your question.
Objectivist
3.3 / 5 (4) Oct 09, 2010
Moral is strictly subjective and the given scenario doesn't provide enough information for one to make a motivated decision. In reality it's a completely meaningless choice, though I would say the same about philosophy.

Allow me to modify the scenario to prove my point.

Change that group of people into a group of murderers. This provides enough information to make a well motivated choice, but it changes the rules too much as the key here was innocence. Let's change it in a slightly more subtle way. Suppose you're in a position with limited food supplies. You're already short on stack, and now you get to make this choice. By saving this group you will send yourself and your family to certain starvation and eventually death as you know you can barely support yourself and them as it is. Now what would you do?

The question only proves that saving or sacrificing life for the sake of itself is meaningless until sufficient information to do either is applied.
RobertKarlStonjek
4.8 / 5 (6) Oct 09, 2010
'Chip Ellsworth III' sounds wealthy, as in a dynasty, sounds like management, sounds like a VIP, politician etc.

'Tyrone Payton' does not sound like any of the above.

So apart from the colour implication there are plenty of other dichotomies that could subliminally sway choices.

I suggest that if 'Bruce Brown' replaced 'Tyrone Payton' the same results, perhaps with a moderately smaller amplitude, would be found. Hence the conclusion that the dichotomy was between black and white is unwarranted considering the very leaky test (leaky stereotypes!!)
jlarocco
not rated yet Oct 10, 2010
They could have had a perfectly useful study if they just left out the political BS.
Sanescience
not rated yet Oct 10, 2010
So, how much money was spent to determine that people are inconsistent?
mdr
5 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2010
I don't like the way the question was worded here. The way I've usually heard it posed was more along the lines of "there is a track junction with one person on the one side and a larger number of people on the other, and you have the ability to switch the tracks to divert the train to either side." "Throwing a person onto the tracks" is a very different matter, involving actively ending someone's life rather than "simply" choosing between two "evil" outcomes. Here you are deciding whether to actively commit an "evil" to avoid a supposed tragedy. And to Damien S- I highly doubt Spock intended his statement to be applied to murdering someone to save others, but rather, that it was the logical choice for one person to sacrifice himself willingly to save others (especially when if he didn't, he'd die with everyone else anyway). Also to Eikka- I highly doubt you would jump in front of the train yourself; I doubt it would occur to you to do either act, but rather, simply watch in horror.
DamienS
3 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2010
And to Damien S- I highly doubt Spock intended his statement to be applied to murdering someone to save others

I never mentioned the emotive word murder and my intent was to choose an outcome, like flipping your train track switch. You must have been wearing your Spock ears to get so upset about a phrase I mentioned in half-jest.
frajo
3 / 5 (7) Oct 12, 2010
Reminds one of the famous Milgram tests where 80-90 percent of the probands - under the influence of an authority - were willing to exert deadly pain onto a (simulating) testperson.

A small comment on the underlying morality:

The fallacy of most people is their unreflected use of finite arithmetics. The life of two persons is considered to be more valuable than the life of only one person. Because the number 2 is greater than the number 1.
I know that most people dislike this kind of measuring but can't explain why and therefore give in to inhuman rationalization. The simple reason is the use of the wrong kind of measure, a finite instead of an infinite. It suffices to acknowledge that every single person's life is of infinite value. Then it is immediately clear that two persons are of equal value as one person. (You know - the rules of infinity.)
Otherwise we must reckon that one healthy person has to be sacrificed if her organs can save the lives of three other persons.
frajo
3 / 5 (6) Oct 12, 2010
I hate these false dichotomies where you have to choose between two morally wrong options and judge which one of them is less wrong.
This study was not about morally right or wrong decisions, it was about decision consistency.
Having said that I agree with you.
frajo
3 / 5 (6) Oct 12, 2010
There's quite a big difference between a murderous terrorist and an innocent bystander.
And there's quite a difference between a person who has killed (innocent humans) and a person who is only planning to kill (innocent) humans.
frajo
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 12, 2010
Even if you could concoct a scenario where one person was guaranteed to save 100 if they allowed themself to be killed (a scenario that is hard to even imagine,)
Not at all. A successful suicide bomber in front of Hitler would have saved more than 100 people.
Yes, I'd be more likely to sacrifice my life to save a friend or family member who I know, as compared to a stranger. For all I know, the stranger could be a rapist or murderer or something like that.
You don't consider the case where your family member tries to kill a family of innocent unknown strangers.
If there is a bus of 50 average kids beside a bus of 50 invalids, and only time to save one bus load, I will save the average ones every time.
So you would tell the rescuers to save first the young stranger who is sharing the hospital room with you when you are old?
Pick the healthiest to live.
Is obesity healthy?
frajo
2 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2010
If you throw an innocent person off a bridge to their death the law states that you have committed murder and will try you for it. There is no way to prove that the death of that person prevented the deaths of others ~ the court will assume that it was your conjecture and ask how on Earth you could have been so sure that the deaths of a hundred people would have followed
Unfortunately, this holds true only for civil cases. A government that engages in killing thousands (Kosovo), hundred thousands (Hiroshima), or more (Vietnam, Iraq) of innocent people will never been held responsible by a court although its rationalizations are based on exactly the same non-falsifiable pseudo-arguments.
otto1932
1 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2010
I know that most people dislike this kind of measuring but can't explain why and therefore give in to inhuman rationalization.
It's obviously biological. Saving a group improves the chances of the species surviving for many reasons, including more viable breeding choices. Sometimes more is better.
A government that engages in killing thousands (Kosovo), hundred thousands (Hiroshima), or more (Vietnam, Iraq) of innocent people will never been held responsible by a court
You are naive. This depends wholly on who wins and who loses the conflict. And 'winning' is a wholly relative term.
otto1932
2 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2010
Is obesity healthy?
Should people who think less of keeping themselves fit and strong enough to save themselves, be favored over other more more responsible and self-respecting individuals? That is, in a situation which absolutely demands a choice? Biology says no. Obesity is a treatable disease that leaves one weak and vulnerable. One need only recall those pictures of bloated bodies in new Orleans who were obviously fat to begin with.
otto1932
1 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2010
A successful suicide bomber in front of Hitler would have saved more than 100 people.
Yes but, according to your calculations (and the opinions of millions of germans, most of whom are dead now), Hitlers life was infinitely valuable. Another unsolvable conundrum using maths which can easily be resolved biologically-

Besides the war was Planned long before hitler was installed as its Providential scapegoat. The war would have happened exactly as it did, most likely with some other talented spokesmodel at the helm of national socialism.

Your calculations do not include all the Variables.
DamienS
3 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2010
What's that saying - a single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.
RETT
not rated yet Oct 31, 2010
It is a false choice because it assumes that we can know the future. Those 100 people could hear the train coming and move or an hundred other possibilities. The person I throw in the path of the train will still be dead.

On the other hand, those who claim that racism is not still abroad need to consider the 20+ percent of the population that still claim to believe that Obama was not born in the United States and/or that he is a Muslim. Can you imagine such beliefs abroad if he were white. Then, we have all these people that "want their country back". The rest of that sentence could most clearly be finished with, "as it was in the beginning" with blacks unable to vote and representing 3/5ths of a person for representation purposes. When blacks were given the vote, we were still left with the enormously undemocratic makeup of the Senate, where Senators representing a tiny fraction of the population can literally control the passage of any bill, where 40 votes can stop any action.
RETT
not rated yet Oct 31, 2010
Even though WWII might have happened in any case due to the impoverishment of Germany, I doubt that the scapegoating of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals would have happened in quite the same way. It is true that the military-industrial complex of Germany was hungry to support anyone who would put them back to work making weapons, but that is a lesson that we might want to try on in the mirror.

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