X-Phil in the NY Times again

but this time in the review of Rebecca Goldstein’s latest novel, Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God.  Janet Maslin, the reviewer closes with this observation:

When Cass [an academic and central character] witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

Ouch!  But ha ha, also.

I don’t know if any of our friends at Experimental Philosophy will notice.  Maslin’s comments remind me that people outside the academia often make the mistake of thinking of some piece of research as though it were an end in itself, as opposed to something more like one step in a much larger project.

At the same time, the idea that the trolley problem is supposed to be a paradigm case of a moral problem seems something feminists might well feel concern over.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “X-Phil in the NY Times again

  1. btw, the review of the book is mixed, but it makes it look interesting. RG is a McArthur fellow and has, I believe, a PhD in philosophy from Princeton. Her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, appears to draw heavily on her experiences at Princeton.

  2. As a feminist, I think the problem in this version represents a slight improvement over its classic formulation by Godwin: “The illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his chambermaid, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred … The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the chambermaid; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable.”

  3. Well, that’s choosing between two people of allegedly different value, as opposed to choosing between one person and five, of presumably equal value. Apples and oranges.

  4. I have always thought the trolley problems were quite absurd and unrealistic.
    An interesting thing with the engineering students I have been dealing with as a TA for ethics and engineering that they usually start to complain about the design of the tracks and the trolley. And it may seem that they are missing the point, but I think they actually quite nail down what the problem with this ridiculous problem is.
    I have no clue how many neuroimaging projects have been done with those trolley problems, but they sure don’t tell me anything useful about morality in the brain.

  5. Hippocampa, I’m going to disagree with you. Have a look at Josh Greene’s website at Harvard for research he’s done on precisely this. He thinks that what emerges that’s significant is the difference between reasoning about this case and reasoning about a seemingly highly similar case.

    One of my major concerns with looking at morality through this highly artifical examples abstracted from real life is that it is part of a disembodied, Cartesian tradition. But it does turn out that if one looks at the body as one reasons about this, the bodily engagement with moral issues comes through.

    I think I’m not clear. Greene’s reasearch might make it clearer.

  6. Thanks for drawing attention to this review, jj. I enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein’s biography of Godel, and now it looks like I ought to read this novel as well.

    But I have to admit to disagreement, or at least puzzlement, with your last comment (your disagreement with hippocampa).

    Let’s grant your background worry – that the recent western ethical tradition is characteristically disembodied and Cartesian, and that exceedingly artificial examples like the trolley problem are a symptom of this. Given that background, it isn’t clear to me how results like Greene’s do much to solve the problem.

    Presumably nearly everyone, even those maximally engaged in treating ethics in a disembodied fashion, would have always acknowledged that there are neural correlates to our moral thoughts. (Literal Cartesian dualists are the exception, I suppose, but how many of those are among contemporary moral theorists?) Why should being shown the particular neural correlates make any difference to these people?

    Greene’s most influential results allegedly show, speaking roughly, that deontic moral judgment is correlated with emotional brain activity, while consequentialist moral judgment is correlated with rational brain activity. (My insertion there of ‘allegedly’ hopefully marks my own skepticism about this interpretation of the data, but let’s leave that aside for now.) The identification of those brain areas as ’emotional’ or ‘rational’ in turn depends on other neurological studies showing distinctive localized activity during other forms of thinking we normally described as ’emotional’ or ‘rational’. But employment of those terms (especially ‘rational’) is driven by familiarly disembodied and abstract considerations (albeit in another domain).

    In other words, it looks as if the bodily aspect of Greene’s research plays no more than a linking role between one traditionally disembodied domain (rationality) and another traditionally disembodied domain (ethics). It’s not clear to me that merely noting the mediating presence of a body does much to change these dynamics – and especially not to dissolve any of the worries about the absurdity of the trolley problem.

    I guess I’m not seeing what you were gesturing at in Greene’s work. Would you care to expand?

  7. (Incidentally, I always feel a bit queasy about attacking the venerable absurd old trolley problem and its kin, since this sizable branch of moral philosophy is one of the places where women have been most influential. The original trolley problem is due to Philippa Foot; Judy Thomson launched the cottage industry of developing variants, and Frances Kamm has done more than anyone alive to systematically work this terrain. But, sadly, I think the objections to this style of ethics are pretty strong…)

  8. RAR, thanks for your thoughtful comments. My own comment was pretty casually meant, but let me try to make some sense of it.

    We could think of two ways of dis-embodiment. One would be to see ethics as some sort of rational calculation that might actually just be carried out according to formulas by a computer and another would be to see it as having little to do with lived human experience, including especially human experience.

    Greene’s work certainly addresses the first pretty directly. I’m wondering if your scepticism is tied to his work specifically or work involving brain scanning more generally. It actually sound to me like the latter. I think what seems to be your main objection – that the interpretations use the same sort of binary oppositions that Descartes left us with – raises an important issue, but one that may now be somewhat solved or at least very mitigated.

    Perhaps idealizing some, I’m inclined to say that so much work has been done in the last 15-20 years that we’re now far from the phenological use of standard terms for activity in bits of the brain. Rather, we have a pretty good idea of the many different functions and connections that “emotion centers” is short hand for; we know a lot of stuff about what connects to action and how, what is aroused typically by this and not that, what has sometimes to respond much more quickly than we can manage to conceptualize anything, which is dampened in autism, and on and on. So behind “emotional centers” is an array of descriptions probably much more vast than that behind “healthy heart” or “optimal weight.”

    And, of course, a lot is subject to revision in all three cases, but it is probably right that the emotional signals that one gets in a lot of cases is pretty independent of at least any complicated rationality. We do know that a lot of human social interaction is very rapid and can’t wait for much thought. Conversely, if you try to substitute thought for having the right social instinctive reactions then you’re probably going to mess up, or at least fail to respond in a way that will sustain strong social ties.

    Recent work certainly suggests that a lot of our sociality is built into the brain and is part of the very rapid reaction system that we have. Fortunately, most of us feel instinctively uncomfortable when we cause others pain and that may be a huge factor in our sustaining moral behavior.

    I was speaking to Michael Smith about his recent work in ethics, and reminding myself that I shouldn’t say too much about a field I don’t work in. However, I have a reasonable grasp of the general outlines of Foot’s views. The trolley case isn’t something her sort of virtue ethicist thinks is a paradigm case of a moral decision. It was, I think, supposed to illuminate a very specific issue concerned with the doctrine of double effect. But, as always, I could be wrong.

  9. My suspicion is that JJT simply uses it to push a point. If we are doing a certain calculus, how is it going to go? If you protest that something else matters more, then what is it? Can you state it cleanly? IMHO, I don’t think JJT’s contribution to the trolly problem industry has its roots in her thinking that that’s what matters most. To the extent the TP brings out what JJT is committed to, I think it is this: let’s get clear on what the thesis is, and see where it leads us. Classic analytic philosophy.

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