What’s so good about being rational?

We are still planning THE BOOK, but we always turn to ideas for the graphic novel first and are constantly distracted by the wonderful artists that we are inspired by. That is, if we are not distracted by cooking and eating.

CDF (neatly cutting celery, chilli and chives):

The trolley problem has to feature.

choppingboardIt is not only visually striking but it will be useful to illustrate some facts about the notorious clash between emotion and reason in our social minds.

UF: Isn’t it strangely related to that other clash we are always struggling with? Between our egotistical and prosocial motives. Are we more rational when we are being prosocial?

So to recap: An out-of-control trolley is speeding down the line towards 5 railway workers who will all be killed. You can save them by diverting the trolley down a branch line, but this will result in one person being killed. Should you divert the trolley?

Most people answer, Yes. It’s the rational, utilitarian answer, and also pro-social, since it avoids killing 5 people.

CDF sharpens his knife with the consequence of such excruciating noise that UF has to temporarily leave the kitchen. When she returns, Chris is flattening a tiny chicken that’s almost split in half, and rubs it with herbs.

You can make a slight change of wording of the trolley problem: You can save the 5 workers by pushing the large man, standing next to you, onto the track, thus stopping the trolley, but also killing the large man. Should you push the large man?

Now, most people answer, No.

UF: So, what is going on?

CDF (carefully placing a layer of cut Brussels sprouts into butter foaming in a small heavy saucepan): Fortunately, there’s a brain imaging study to help us out. Volunteers in the scanner were asked to reflect on the suggestion that they should push the large man onto the track. They showed much higher activity in ‘emotional areas’ of the brain. It seems, if you don’t reflect you can more readily make the utilitarian choice – ‘utilitarian’ meaning ‘for the greater good’. Just do the arithmetic: the lives of 5 people add up to more than the life of 1. However, the emotional response to the thought of pushing a person onto the track is hard to ignore. It interferes with processes by which we might reach a utilitarian decision.

UF (turning up the gas flame while stirring vanilla custard): The emotions are brought to a boil by the extreme nature of the decision you have to make. They tell you that you can’t kill the large person next to you. But they also make you forget the five others. What happens if the outcome of the decision is less fraught?

CDF: There is the ultimatum game: Bob is given a pot of money to share with Liz. Bob offers a proportion to Liz. If Liz accepts, then both can keep their share. If Liz rejects the offer, then neither gets any money. The rational decision for Liz is to accept anything, since some money is better than none.

UF: In practice, Liz will get angry and reject offers when she feels they are insultingly low.

CDF: Rejection happens if Bob offers less than about a third of the pot. And now if you could get out of my way…

UF (taking her custard to the side and getting out sherry to dribble on some sponge fingers in dessert glasses): Just a moment…

CDF (drying his hands): Once again brain imaging comes to our rescue. As you suspected, rejection of offers is associated with activity in emotional regions of the brain.

UF: Even with these more trivial decisions, emotion is the enemy of reason. But wait, it’s not necessarily an irrational action. If we ignored emotion then we wouldn’t know what is good or bad for us. We make decisions by choosing the good and avoiding the bad. What is so good about being rational?

CDF (putting the chicken now covered in herbs into the oven): Talking of frontal lobes – the origin of reason in the brain: When the frontal lobes are damaged, decisions should become less rational.

UF (pouring the vanilla custard over morello cherries in the desert glasses): Don’t they?

CDF: When people with damage to prefrontal cortex play the ultimatum game they do become more irrational in their responses. They are strongly inclined to reject poor offers. But, here’s the rub: when they are presented with moral dilemmas, they select the more utilitarian scenarios, and they act more rationally than people with intact frontal lobes.

UF (sprinkling almond flakes on top of the custard): Well that’s a bit difficult to explain. How can frontal lobe damage cause people to be less rational in one situation and more rational in another?

CDF (opening a bottle of St Aubin, 2009): First, there’s a problem with the trolley problem: What people say they would do doesn’t necessarily relate to what they would actually do! In the ultimatum game people have to make real choices. But, as typically presented, the trolley problem is hypothetical.

UF: Let’s sit down and see what this wine tastes like.

CDF: And I can tell you about one problem with the trolley problem. It’s hypothetical.

The trolley problem in real life

 Attempts to explore the trolley problem in real life have proved controversial.

trolley1The latest activity from lawmakers comes just two weeks after a Senate bill introducing new trolley safety regulations died in committee. The bill encountered stiff opposition from industry lobby groups such as the National Railroad Association. “Trolleys don’t kill people,” said NRA spokesman Lane Stone, “moral philosophers kill people.”

(taken from here and here)

UF: (laying cutlery and large white napkins on the table): Didn’t our friend, Dean Mobbs compare hypothetical dilemmas with the same problem in real life?

CDF (opening the oven and springing away as his glasses get steamed up): Yes. This is the Pain vs Gain paradigm, which you can study in the lab. Participants get a pot of money and can either use this to prevent a companion from receiving painful electric shocks or keep the money for themselves.

UF: Surely, it’s clear what to do: You use all the money to prevent the shock to the companion.

CDF: Well, yes. In the hypothetical scenario 93% of the people said that’s what they’d do. But in real life this didn’t happen. All the participants kept some of the money for themselves, and all their companions suffered some shocks.

UF: So what trick are the emotions playing here? Where is our deeply prosocial nature; our predisposition to help others?

CDF serving up the chicken by cutting it neatly in half: People felt just that little bit more emotionally attached to their own benefit.

UF: Ah, this chicken is delicious. And it goes amazingly well with the blackened sprouts.

CDF: This version of cooking sprouts makes them almost edible.

UF: Lets face it. We are all moral hypocrites. We do things even though we say we wouldn’t. It’s tough following one’s moral principles.

CDF pouring more wine: Actually it’s also tough being a moral hypocrite. We have to justify our behaviour when we don’t follow our moral principles. One of the people in the Pain vs Gain experiment said, “I struggled with what to do. I wanted the money but I didn’t want to hurt him. I decided that he could take a little pain and I could make a little money.” We can always come up with hypocritical justifications.

UF (feeling benevolent after having been indulged in her inexplicable liking for sprouts): Sadly, looking after “Number One” often gets in the way of looking after your nearest and dearest others, let alone the greatest number of people.

Utilitarian judgements and the greater good

CDF: This brings us to the study by Guy Kahane at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.

UF (clearing the dishes away): I remember you saying what an excellent paper it was.

CDF: Yes indeed. Kahane and colleagues have explored what we have been talking about. They asked what kind of person endorses the utilitarian decision to kill the fat man next to him to save five lives. Was this a fine person thinking of the greater good? Not a bit of it. They found that this person is also likely to endorse behaviours such as tax evasion, doesn’t give money to charity and feels less of an identity with the group. This is a rational egotist.

UF: This brings me back to Liz rejecting low offers in the ultimatum game. She may actually have done a noble act serving the greater good. Maybe Bob will be taught a lesson and behave more fairly in the future.

CDF: Yes, people who reject low offers, are typically prosocial in other situations. Here being prosocial is linked to behaving irrationally, just as in Kahane’s study being egotistical is linked to behaving rationally.

UF (fetching the dessert glasses): I am interested in how the emotions feature in both types of people. Presumably emotions can be self-oriented or other-oriented.

CDF: I am interested in how making a rational choice doesn’t mean concern for the greater good. Rational means I can justify my behaviour to myself and to others, by showing that I have made the best choice.

CDF: This trifle is not bad. To continue: Being rational is about winning arguments, not about being good. The non-egotistical choice can also be considered rational, but it is a bit harder to justify to yourself: you have to believe that you or your friends will benefit later on. This is probably best in the long run, while the egotistical choice seems best in the short run.

What’s so good about being utilitarian?

UF: So, utilitarian judgments are just what we need when it comes to justifying our behaviour. Obviously it is better to save 5 at the expense of 1.

CDF: But emotional involvement is difficult to keep away. Consider the original dilemma proposed by William Godwin. If only one person can be saved from the fire, should we save Archbishop Fenelon or the chambermaid? Godwin –clearly ignoring the emotional component – concluded that we should save the Archbishop since he would contribute more to the greater good.

This is a utilitarian judgment, but is it a good judgment? Unfortunately all sorts of terrible things have been justified on the basis that the life of one kind of person is more valuable than the life of another kind of person. Here our strong emotional inhibitions may prevent us from entering into a nightmare scenario. I would not like to live in a society where less valuable people were routinely sacrificed for the greater good.

UF: Unfortunately people can get trapped in nightmare scenarios. Hurricane Katrina created Godwin’s dilemma in real life. Sheri Fink wrote about the terrible story of Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, when hospital staff were confronted with the need to evacuate the patients under most difficult circumstances. Imagine being surrounded by five feet of water, with no electricity, little in the way of food and medical supplies and temperatures indoors of 400C. And seven patients had died while being moved. Which patients should be given priority in the evacuation? The sickest and most vulnerable? Or should they be left behind, since they have ‘the least to lose’? The consequence of making the latter choice was arrest for second degree murder. Interestingly, amidst great public controversy, the case was rejected by a grand jury. They recognised the impossible dilemma that the staff faced.

CDF: I don’t know what decision I would make in such terrible circumstances, but I know I would want my rational attempts at self-justification to be tempered by emotion.