Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Large Portion of My Class Says They'd Push Someone in Front of a Runaway Train

...if that would stop the train in time so that it wouldn't hit five more people further along the track. I find that rather disturbing and I think it shows that a lot of college students aren't very reflective about moral issues (as if that wasn't obvious enough already given the number who think relativism is a reasonable or even obligatory position to take). This is classic consequentialist sort of thinking.

Classic consequentialism says that the right action to take is the one that produces the most good consequences. So if we want to decide between action A and action B, we look and see how much good stuff will result from doing A and compare that with the result from doing B. Nothing else matters - that action A is a rape, for instance, and action B is helping a little old lady across the street is completely irrelevant to determining the rightness or wrongness of the two actions. All that matters is the consequences.

Here, what the students seem to be doing is weighing lives against each other - five lives are worth more than one life, so doing something that results in five living and one dead is morally better than doing something that results in five dead and one living. But that just seems morally reprehensible - human beings aren't mere commodities whose relative values can be weighed or compared with one another or to see what a single human being's life is worth. Human lives aren't the sort of thing that you can just add together to get more value - human beings are of infinite valuable or at least not additive value. The students' approach here, however, ignores the inherent dignity and incomparability of human value and treats human lives as mere objects to be bought or sold with no regard to the personal wishes, rights, or integrity of the individual human person.

Why are students (and some philosophers) tempted by this sort of picture, though? One reason, I suspect is watching too much TV or too many movies or reading too many books where the hero engages in consequentialist-permitted (but seemingly wrong) actions all for the greater good and succeeds in doing so. Passing no judgment on the hero, this sort of story can influence people's moral perceptions. Stories can make us sympathize with or root for evil people or want them to engage in their evil acts (consider, for instance, the thrill and narrative satisfaction one gets at the end of The Godfather, for instance, when all of Michael Corleone's enemies are gunned down and killed).

Alternatively, we may be influenced by these things in the following sort of way: we want to see X to happen since X is better than the other alternatives, so we root for the person involved to do action Y to bring about X even though Y might be wrong - and (this is the crucial part) we mistake this approval of X with approval for the action, Y, that brings about X. Take the TV show 24, for instance - few episodes go by where you don't have the hero, Jack Bauer, or one of the other agents torturing someone to get some key information to help save a bunch of other people. We all, of course, prefer a world where there is one torture and no murders to a world where there is no torture and many murders, so we may want Jack to do the torture so that the first world is the one that we live in rather than the second. But that doesn't mean that what Jack does is morally permissible. It is a mistake to go from "the world ought to be such that it includes Jack doing such-and-such" to "Jack ought to do such-and-such", but it is a very easy mistake to make - one many people, many of my students included, seem to have fallen into.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Pretty scary proposition and yet most people I meet think the same way. TV and movies have had such a subtle influence on the way that we think that it never occurs to anyone that there might be something wrong with this. Drew was learning about Machiavelli in school and asked me what was meant by the end justifies the means. I tried in my pea-brained way to explain this to him but perhaps I should have just had him watch an episode of 24! He asked me if that was good or bad. I said if something is wrong, it is wrong and even if the outcome is "good", it doesn't change the wrongness of it. Did that make any sense? He seemed to get it or maybe he just wanted me to stop talking to him. He's 12 and I'm his mother, communication isn't always what it should be.