We’d like to believe that we make moral judgments based on rational thought, but the truth is that our moral thinking cannot escape our emotions. Let’s take a look at how anxiety, empathy, anger, and disgust shape our moral thinking, and how we can harness these emotions for making better moral decisions.
The infamous Trolley Problem
Imagine this scenario: As you’re walking by a train station, you notice there are some construction workers working on the tracks. There’s a fork in the track, so a train could either go left or right. On the left track, there’s only one person working. On the right track, there are five people working. They all have noise-canceling headphones on and don’t seem to know what’s going on around them.
Suddenly, you see an out-of-control train car coming down the tracks—it must have gotten loose from a train! The fork in the track is directed towards the right side, so the out-of-control car is headed straight for the five workers, certain to kill them all. There’s no way to stop the train car. The only thing you can do is to pull a switch to redirect the car towards the left track, which would kill the one worker there.
Do you pull the switch?
It’s a tough one, isn’t it? On the one hand, it seems like a no-brainer that killing one person to save five is better than killing five to save one. On the other hand, redirecting the track would require you to purposely cause someone’s death rather than letting the accident take its course. Most of us feel at least squeamish about the kill-one-to-save-five choice, but most of us, when pressed, agree with it. At least when asked about it hypothetically, that is.
This is the classic moral dilemma called the Trolley Problem. Many philosophers and psychologists have used it to study and ponder the way we think about morality. One big question they’ve asked is: “Do people make these decisions based on rational thinking, or are they influenced by other factors?”
Well, consider this twist to the Trolley Problem for your answer: What if there is no switch to redirect the train car, but there is a large stranger walking by that you could push onto the track? This person would be killed, but their body would stop the train from killing the five construction workers. Would you push the stranger?
Here, the math is the same—sacrificing one to save five. But I bet you had a different gut reaction. If so, then it shows that something else is helping you make this decision. What is that something else?
It turns out that emotions play a big role in the way we judge morality and make moral decisions. What did you feel when considering the Trolley Problem and the Stranger variation of it? Fear? Empathy? Disgust? Let’s take a look at the science behind how these emotions—and your relationship to them—affect your moral compass.