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Where Does Morality Come From?
What I learned from talking to a philosopher
Victor Tanis-Stoll

“You’re in a foreign country, hiking in a forest alone. You come to a field where five men are about to be executed. The man who’s about to kill them says to you, ‘I was going to kill them all, but if you take my gun and shoot one of them, I’ll let the other four go.’ What do you do?”

I said, “I’d take the gun and shoot the executioner.”

But filmmaker and philosopher Jennifer Dworkin wouldn’t let me do that. She came to the Represent office to talk to me about ethics, and she’s the one who brought up the hypothetical situation. She told me I had to point a gun at the man he told me to shoot and kill him to save the lives of four others. Or walk away. Which would it be?

I said, “My parents are religious. Their voices in my head would tell me to walk away. Thou shalt not kill. So I’d walk away.”

“Because of a moral law of not killing or squeamishness?” Jennifer asked.

“I’m afraid it’s squeamishness.”

“Is that a failure or is that your morality?”

I was starting to get upset. I turned it back on her: “What would you do?”

“I’d kill the guy,” she said.

Figuring Out What Being Good Means

Jennifer’s not a killer; she’s a philosopher who studied at Cornell University. I interviewed her because I’d been wondering if I’m a good person and what “good person” even means.

She says philosophers are always playing head games, like the one with the executioner in the forest, called thought experiments. They make you dig around in your mind to decide what you really believe. Jennifer said when you do a thought experiment, “You’re figuring out what is important to you, what being good means to you, what you should do.”

The study of ethics is a major branch of philosophy. Jennifer said there are two main types of ethics: relativistic and realistic. Relativists say that there’s no god—or any other moral force—to say what’s right or wrong. There are no absolute rules governing everyone: Different groups have different standards. What’s right for someone may be wrong for someone else, and we have laws and rules only to make life in our own society manageable, to keep order.

Jennifer doesn’t agree with the relativists. She said, “The problem with that is, how can you judge other social groups if they’re just acting within their own rules? If a society says slavery is OK, does that mean it’s not wrong? How about the oppression of women?” She thinks a philosophy should be able to prove that something as bad as slavery is wrong, through reason.

The second group, the realists, think that there ARE universal right answers, based on moral laws. Realists include utilitarians who believe in “the greatest good for the greatest number.” They would definitely kill the one guy to save the other four. Another kind of realist is a duty ethicist. This includes religious people who follow rules like “thou shalt not kill.” They would not shoot the one guy because it would be against their rules. All realists believe in universal moral laws, and the ones who aren’t religious think you can figure out those laws by thinking them through.

image by YC-Art Dept

What I Think

“Moral laws” sounded pretty absolute to me, like the law of gravity or other laws of nature. If realists are right and there are definitive answers to common moral problems, then it should apply to every single person on this planet. There are no exceptions to the law of gravity—everyone’s stuck on the ground.

However, it seems like our world is a pretty relativist place. What people agree is moral or immoral changes all the time. Take the moral issue of the oppression of women; in Western society, for most of history, females were expected to play their roles as mothers and nothing more. Today, women are joining the army, running companies, and running for president. So what’s considered right and wrong in one society and time period is very different from another place and time. The cultures of different peoples vary, and that culture determines what is accepted.

Realists might say that, even though people’s beliefs in what’s right and wrong have changed over the years, there are uniform laws that we just haven’t discovered yet. But until then, in my opinion, relativists make a better case for explaining where morality comes from.

I asked Jennifer if you could test moral laws the way you did science experiments. And that’s when she started making me imagine myself taking a gun and shooting someone. “There are no physical experiments, but there are thought experiments. Those are the only kind moral philosophers can do,” Jennifer said.

A famous philosophical thought experiment is the Trolley Problem: A trolley is headed toward 10 people on the tracks. There are no brakes, but there is a switch, and if you pull the switch, you will redirect the train to another track where a person is tied to the tracks. You can pull the switch and kill the tied-down person. If you do nothing, the 10 will die.

I found this problem very hard because I change my mind a lot. I said I’d kill the one person and then I’d probably get drunk to forget it. I said I couldn’t escape my feelings when I imagined these scenarios.

Feelings vs. Logic?

Jennifer replied that the utilitarian solution to this thought experiment, “doesn’t fit in with feelings. You have to judge it by its internal logic. You’re supposed to [ignore your personal feelings] and see what’s right for the most people.” Jennifer said that the point of the thought experiments are to “separate your feelings from your beliefs. They help you dig down to your own beliefs.”

“Utilitarians only care about actions and their consequences. There’s only one good: human pleasure and one bad: human pain. They think you can balance happiness and pain, not for yourself, but for everyone. It’s the most radical theory because everyone is equal and is the same.”

I pointed out that most people don’t act in a utilitarian way in the real world. People value, for example, their own families over other people. A person who can’t handle the kind of pressure and guilt in the thought experiments surely wouldn’t survive in a purely utilitarian world.

I’m not sure that I agree that feelings should be separate from ethics. For example, the other day I gave my seat to a woman standing on the train, and it felt good. Part of how I knew this was a “good” action was the positive feeling it gave me.

Moral philosophy seems like it would be useful in jobs dealing with ethics, like being a doctor, lawyer, or police officer—all professions that require tough ethical choices. But I am pulled in many directions when it comes to the trolley problem and the executioner scenario. “Could I really make a tough choice like that and kill someone to save others?” I asked myself.

Thought experiments might help teach me about myself. In the forest, I didn’t want to shoot the guy I was told to shoot. In the trolley problem, I did not want to pull the switch and run over the tied-down person. One conclusion is that I’m bad under pressure, something I hope changes in the future.

But more importantly, thinking about these things makes me realize that my feelings are part of my moral compass, and they help keep me in line. If I feel guilt about an act, it is probably bad. If I feel good about something, like I did when I gave the lady the seat on the train, it’s usually something most people agree is good. In all, I think having something like this in me and listening to it makes me, at least, a decent person. So I disagree that feelings need to be separated from ethics—for me, emotions are part of my conscience.

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