Friday, November 30, 2007

An Easy Way Out?

The flap over the "Created Equal" series of columns, for some reason, reminded me of an earlier stand alone Human Nature column. Back in March, William Saletan wrote "Mind Makes Right," about a study published in the journal Nature. I found this study interesting enough to mention it on Nobody In Particular, and I suppose that it's lingered in the back of my mind ever since. But thinking about the challenges of egalitarianism in the face of arguments over inequality, it came back to the forefront.

Scenario 12: Lifeboat 2
Mean emotion rating: 5.1
You are on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat you’re in is sitting dangerously low in the water—a few inches lower and it will sink.
The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. If nothing is done it will sink before the rescue boats arrive and everyone on board will die. However, there is an injured person who will not survive in any case. If you throw that person overboard the boat will stay afloat and the remaining passengers will be saved.
Would you throw this person overboard in order to save the lives of the remaining passengers?
"Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements" - Nature
What makes this scenario interesting is that fact that the injured passenger is going to die, no matter what you do. If you push them overboard, they drown. If you leave them in the boat, it sinks, and everyone, including the injured passenger, drowns. And depending on how you read the scenario, even if the rescue boats were to show up right at that moment, the injured passenger is going to die from their injuries.

According to the Nature study, certain damage to the prefrontal cortex increases the chance that a person would state a preference for pushing the injured passenger overboard, saving themselves certainly, but also saving each and every other person in the lifeboat with them. Nature's researchers concluded that absent this damage, people are more likely to chose a "moral" solution (in this case, everyone drowns) to a "utilitarian" solution (the fatally injured passenger drowns, but everyone else survives). Put another way, "normal" people are commonly unwilling to make a determination that the fatally injured passenger's life is worth little enough that it is appropriate to sacrifice them to save everyone else, even if the alternative is effectively mass suicide.
"What really interests me [... are] the things at which we as a society will grasp in order to justify pushing people off the boat."
Dawn Coyote
Whatever the reason, Malthusian scenarios and people's sense of justice do not mix, and conflicts between the two often conspire to make people cowards of a sort. People either flee difficult decisions or look for ways to make them easier. The injured passenger on Nature's sinking lifeboat is guilty of nothing outside of bad luck, and it feels unfair to push them overboard, even when everyone else's life depends on it. And so people have difficulty in persuading themselves to do so.

Perhaps this is the root of the recurring attempts by this tribe or that nation to establish an "objective" hierarchy of relative human worth, sometimes based on laughably shallow and/or imprecise criteria. It may be a dirty business, but if it's based on "facts," then it can be argued that there is no self-serving bias involved. The results may violate one's sense of propriety, the argument goes, but they represent the "truth," and perhaps even reflect the order of the universe, or, at an extreme, the will of the divine. People may not put themselves in the very first spot, to avoid the appearance of outright bias, but you can be sure that hardcore hierarchicists are going to ensure that they make the cutoff when the hard choices have to be made. In this degree, bigotry allows for scarcity and justice to go hand-in-hand, by placing the difficult decisions in the hands of facts.

Maybe the reason why we grasp at reasons as a society, is that it frees us from having to make these judgment calls as individuals.
"No, we are not created equal. But we are endowed by our Creator with the ideal of equality, and the intelligence to finish the job."
William Saletan "human nature: Created Equal - All God's Children"

It's understood that the ideal of equality doesn't mean that we all die together. We would hope that it aspires to a state where people don't make decisions based on narrow parochial and emotional interests; acting to advance preserve themselves, people they identify with, and people they like at the expense of others (whom they conveniently label as undesirables). That level of enlightenment is a laudable goal, but given history up to this point, it's clear that we need at least one backup plan.

I would postulate that short of universal enlightenment, the greatest tool that equality has at its disposal is plenty. While there are assholes who just can't stand to see other people happy, most of us, when our own bellies are full, have no issues with other people also eating their fill. Debates over whether it's the gifted students or the developmentally disabled who should get the lion's share of resources fade when neither group has to go begging. True, there are people for whom everything just isn't enough. There's always another multi-millionaire who feels that they need to steal what others have to feel complete. Quietly lock them away, and make sure they get their medications, while the rest of us go on with taking care of things. So rather than be allow ourselves to be locked into a hyper-competitive Malthusian disaster scenario, perhaps we're better off working to see if we can make the pie large enough to go around.

Just as useful, if a somewhat more difficult tool to cultivate, is a simple acceptance that sometimes, life isn't fair. Justice may be the bread and butter of legal scholars and activists, but its not something taught in physics and biology classes. Inequity aversion may be hardwired into our brains, but inequity avoidance isn't always possible. Sometimes, there really is no choice except for someone to go overboard, and there's no just way to decide who it is. Not dealing with it doesn't change that, so the best thing to do is to be as prepared as possible, so that such dire straits are few and far between.


TenaciousK said...

Nice post. I do have the sense that the "utilitarian prefrontal cortex lesion" scientists are overlooking a critical detail or two, however. First, there's a huge difference between imagining you are in such a scenario, and then being in the lifeboat. The difference is adrenalin, and it's impact should not be underestimated; when the chips are down, you can be damn sure somebody is going overboard.

The other involves the manner in which a prefrontal cortex lesion produces such a response; might be greater pragmatism, or it might be diminished social inhibition, or even diminished capacity for abstract reasoning. But whatever the mechanism, I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, and all that.

We live in remarkably opulent times. It's astounding to me that people actually feel compelled to throw anyone out of the lifeboat. So I think you're a little off on your conclusion about plenty as well; having ample resources is far less important than people perceiving we have ample resources. The difference might seem trivial, but it is not - perception of scarcity is something more easily manipulated than actual abundance of resources, and inequity of distribution (social comparison) exerts a prominent effect as well.

Otherwise, I dunno - if I can bring myself to write a comprehensive post about the issues, I'll post a response later. Otherwise, though - interesting and provocative post. Thanks.

topazz said...

Interesting, in that it immediately brought up thoughts of Iraq - how we allow thousands of our own to die at the expense of an ideal. A cracked ideal, to be sure - and not one that many share. But a moral ideal, just the same.

Also interesting - the "adrenalin" TK mentioned above. Is the same live or die scenario - when encountered in wartime - a no-brainer as opposed to the intellectualizing going on during the cruise ship scenario?

Aaron said...

Gaah... busted. You're absolutely right, K. I should have worked with the perception of plenty, as the perception is clearly more important than the reality. We here in the United States have been socialized into a culture of scarcity, when we've pretty much got loot falling out of the trees.

TenaciousK said...

Hi Aaron,
It's the perceptual distortions that I find the most obscene in this scenario. I don't really know what kind of man my great-grandfather was, except for the little I heard about him. I suspect I know, however, because I knew a couple of his kids when he was alive. He had twelve people living in a 3-bedroom house, and worked as a tinsmith - not a prestigious profession. He was also living at the time when people were telling "dumbswede" jokes (predecessors to "Polack" jokes). But he used to help people out, when he could, and his kids were phenomenal human beings. Compared to the standards of today, however, they were raised in absolute poverty.

I think that one of the differences is that people were further apart then - that they lived in relatively small communities, and shared a greater sense of shared welfare. Now we live in such proximity that we find ways to distance ourselves - we walk around wearing I-pods, or talking to distant people on cell phones, or spend time online, and often don't know our neighbors at all.

I think that sense of community was protective, in a sense - people knew that there were other people around who were concerned with their welfare, and that instills a sense of safety. Now we're all pretty much in this alone, and I think this leaves us vulnerable to developing that perception of scarcity; it's not really scarcity at all, it's related to the idea that we are in competition, rather than in collaboration.

But the world is full of distortions these days - like your Iraq, Topazz; we colluded with those who wanted to invade because we were afraid, and wanted to believe it would make us safer. Those perceptions are also influencing battlefield behavior, as fearful soldiers (or "security contractors") turn their guns on civilian populations because they are afraid, and believe - under the perspective-narrowing influence of all that adrenalin - that it will make them safer somehow.

It's interesting how employing a different moral calculus can lead you to the same solutions, sometimes. I would argue that the subjects with prefrontal lesions prefer utilitarian solutions because they have lost some capacity to process moral ambiguity. But someone else might arrive at the same solution employing real empathic capacity, understanding that this is the solution they would want, if they were lying there, and in their right mind. Someone in Iraq might choose to pull the trigger because they are homicidal, while someone else might pull the trigger because they have a fervent desire to protect people, and to restore a sense of order, so that people living there might benefit. Our utilitarian commanders do not seem to feel the need to differentiate, however, and in their desire to get a job done have apparently unleashed some monstrous people on a vulnerable population.

In the end, this probably constitutes my most fundamental objection to the "race realist" argument - that in the end, it doesn't really matter whether they're right, or not (I'm convinced they're not, but that's beside the point). These are the scared, homicide-inclined security contractors of the social-engineering world. They are not interested in helping people realize their potentials, or engaging in an empathic way; they are eager to pull that trigger indiscriminately because they believe, somehow, that this makes them safer - that kicking people off the boat, in this instance, will save lives.

But that is, itself, a lie in this situation - our lifeboat is floating merrily along, sitting high and buoyant in the water. In fact, so was the ship we left - I don't think it was actually sinking at all. But there are immoral people out there who are adept at instilling the fear they feel in others, and then convincing them to undertake an indefensible course, believing it will somehow make them safer. You see it on the micro level, and you see it on the macro level.

I think those of us who have the sophistication to see such things have an ethical obligation to interrupt this process whenever we can - to spread a little inoculation around in the form of a more accurate perception of the world.

But it's a hard sell, because once that adrenalin kicks in, all bets are off. Somebody might get tossed out of that lifeboat whether we need them to go, or not. So our first order of business is to assist people in overcoming the fear instilled by the distorted impression they've adopted - I suppose we can either address the distortion or the fear, or optimally, both.

Tricky business, that.

Dawn Coyote said...

Something that is conspicuous by its absence in the present discussion is the observation of IQ differences by gender. In times of economic stress, women of colour suffer disproportionately, and with the current downturn and the spectre of Hillary on the horizon, it's inevitable that those motivated to shore up the status quo will attempt to downgrade women along with blacks. I imagine we'll see it play out in the healthcare debate. Or we won't see it because we'll be insulated against it.

I don't mind utilitarian choices. What I find repugnant are the rationalizations that we employ to make them palatable. I can make people pretty uncomfortable with my refusal to indulge them. Who wants to think about their convenient ordering of the universe as anything other that just and right? We only think we want to know the truth.

Breeding a perception of fear and scarcity is one way that governments and interest groups gain public cooperation, but people have to go along with it, and it's in the not-seeing that we are complicit in human rights violations, at home and abroad. We don't have to think about it. Someone else will do the thinking for us while we're putting together a new playlist in iTunes.

This is a visually stunning and culturally fascinating film. The competition between tribal factions is characterized in the story as an infiltration of evil, but it struck me as I watched it that it was just competition. Evil is relative, after all.

One thing the film made me think about is how we often fail to consider the long-term consequences of our utilitarian decisons. What if the guy you pushed off is your brother in law, and you get back home to find that the story arrived ahead of you and his father is murdering your children? It's never just one body going overboard.

Archaeopteryx said...

Who wants to think about their convenient ordering of the universe as anything other that just and right? We only think we want to know the truth.

I remember my Mom trying to instill into me how much better we were because we were white, and Christian, and how much smarter she was because she was from the North. I think a lot of the racial IQ discussion is about xenophobia, and poor self-image. "Hey, we may not be as smart as the Jews, but at least we're smarter than those heathen Africans." I read his articles, and I see Saletan at his AEI meeting thinking "Hey, I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"

Aaron said...

"What if the guy you pushed off is your brother in law, and you get back home to find that the story arrived ahead of you and his father is murdering your children?"

In some ways, it's the risk you take. The way the scenario is constructed (and several of the study's more fraught scenarios work this way), someone is going to die, there's no avoiding it. The only real question is do you do them in yourself to avoid dying with them. I suppose that that the father would steadfastly refuse to see it that way, secure in the belief that his son could have been saved, but: "nothing is impossible to the person who doesn't have to do it himself."*

The idea that, in the end, our lives, and the lives of our loved ones are only worth what people are willing and/or able to expend to preserve them can be hard for us to accept, especially when we find that those called upon to make the effort have other priorities.

Which, I suppose is why it's better to dedicate ourselves to avoiding such situations, rather than trying to create "fair" means of resolving them.

* "One of my rules of life is that 'nothing is impossible to the person who doesn't have to do it himself.'" Bill Center ("Please Steal this Idea!" Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 4 May, 2006.)

TenaciousK said...

"Who wants to think about their convenient ordering of the universe as anything other that just and right? We only think we want to know the truth."

I'd argue that the explanation for this invariably boils down to a "pick your battles" kind of thing. Perhaps what's most telling about us as people is implied by the battles we refuse to fight.

Arch - that's really sad, isn't it? Saletan didn't used to strike me that way. Do you think your mother was saying, in essence, the same thing to herself?

"The idea that, in the end, our lives, and the lives of our loved ones are only worth what people are willing and/or able to expend to preserve them can be hard for us to accept, especially when we find that those called upon to make the effort have other priorities.

That was always true. Scary, isn't it, that we (collectively) seem to mean so much less to each other now? Sometimes I think I should've raised my kids in a small town.

Aaron, I am so stealing that quote.

Oh, and Topazz, I should've said "hi". It's been awhile, and I've missed you.

Nice discussion following a provocative post - go figure. It's still a lot like I remember it.

august said...

tk -- are you General Disarray on the fray?

TenaciousK said...

Uhm, yeah - I am.