[extropy-chat] frozen in fire

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Mon Jan 22 00:55:26 UTC 2007

Anders wrote: 

> Here it is usually stated as the "trolley problem", where 
> pulling a lever saves some people at the expense of someone 
> else. There is a hillarious parody of this kind of thought 
> experiment at http://www.mindspring.com/~mfpatton/Tissues.htm 
> - after one year in Oxford I agree with the comment below the text.
> BTW, the trolley problem has some interesting neuroethical 
> complications.
> In the case of pulling a lever most people (after some 
> agonizing) end up saving the many at the expense of the few, 
> a utilitarian approach. But change the problem to that you 
> are standing on top of a bridge and see the trolley run down 
> the track. You can either push a very fat man down onto the 
> tracks (he will reliably stop the trolley but will die; you 
> are too small to have any effect if you sacrifice yourself) 
> or do nothing as the trolley runs into a group of people. In 
> this case most people actually do not save the many.
> Joshua Greene imaged the brains of people dealing with this 
> kind of problem, and could see more activation in amygdala 
> and other emotional systems and less in frontal lobe working 
> memory systems when the moral problem got more personal:
> http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/
> This has led to a fun neuroethical debate as Peter Singer has 
> launched a general attack on "moral intuitions" as being 
> irrational, and more or less only the utilitarian 
> consideration as rational based on this. Some of our local 
> neuroethicists disagree. Everybody are now busy writing 
> papers refuting each other.

It's another example that our ethical thinking is still in the
pre-enlightenment phase, full of superstition and based on strongly held
but unfounded beliefs.  We've got people claiming morality is handed
down by God, while the more enlightened among us, for centuries now,
argue the fine points of ethics as a subclass of aesthetics (which of
course it is, but that's not sufficient for understanding.)

We've got better tools now, such that we can ask and understand *why*
and *how* some objects are considered more beautiful than others, some
actions considered more moral than others.  But because the subject
remains so rarified for most of us, we still turn to the alchemists for

As for the trolley problem, there is no "right" answer, and utilitarian
and consequentialist approaches fail for this very reason leaving people
with paradox.  But if one is brave and unorthodox enough to apply
evolutionary psychology and a bit of game theory to the problem, one
might understand why and how this behavior came to be, and in very
rational terms.  

It's difficult to imagine the evolution of cooperation without the
evolution of a deep compunction against utilitarian sacrifice of one's
neighbor, given an individual's limited context of awareness of the
extended consequences.  Of course one tends to play it close and play it
safe, and this keeps the advancement of cooperative growth within the
viable range over evolutionary time.

However, while the game's the same, the playing field is changing, and
we'd better update our tools to play this game effectively.

- Jef

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