The Cognitive Side of Morality

The video above is from Michael Sandel’s Justice project at Harvard University. In the video Sandel introduces a famous dilemma in philosophy involving a runaway trolly car. In the first case you must decide whether to divert the car onto a side-track causing it to kill a single railworker, or to do nothing, leaving the car to careen into a larger group of five workers. In the second case you are on a footbridge overlooking the out-of-control trolly car and must decided whether to push a fat man over the bridge railing and onto the track, killing him, but saving the five railworkers who would otherwise be killed. People’s answers differ obviously, but one important question is why they differ. The Cognitive Philosophy blog reviews some neuroscience research to help us find the answer:

So what does all this mean? The result of this research seems to imply that our emotional system, an evolved brain system, has a large causal role in creating our moral intuitions, and that deficiencies in this system lead to significant differences in our moral judgments.

It’s important to remember that “deficiencies” in this context does not imply some non-normative outcome in moral judgement. As the blog goes on to point out, and as the difficulty of the runaway trolly dilemma makes clear, there is no “right” answer in difficult moral decisions.


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