The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality: Our Intuition Is Not Good.

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Dec. 14 2013 6:45 AM

The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality

Evolution didn’t equip us for modern judgments.

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TO: In what other ways should we question our intuition?
JG: Consider the dilemma philosopher Peter Singer posed four decades ago. You see a child drowning. You could save that child's life but, if you do, you will ruin your fancy $1,000 suit. Singer asked if it was OK to let the child drown. Most people say, of course not, that would be monstrous.

In another case, children on the other side of the world are desperately in need of food. By donating money, you could save their lives. Do you have an obligation to do that? Most people say that it’s nice if you do, but it’s not terrible if you instead choose to spend your money on luxuries for yourself. Most philosophers have taken those intuitions at face value and said, that’s right, there is a moral obligation when the child is right in front of you, but not on the other side of the world. But Singer asked, is there really a moral difference?

TO: So, is there a moral difference between helping people nearby and those far away?
JG: Psychology can help us answer that question. Jay Musen and I recently did a more controlled version of Singer’s experiment and got very similar results—distance made a difference. What does that mean? When you are thinking about whether you have an obligation to try to save people's lives, you don't usually think, well, how close by are they? Understanding what we are reacting to can change the way we think about the problem.

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If, biologically, morality evolved to help us get along with individuals in our community, it makes sense that we have heartstrings that can be tugged—and that they are not going to be tugged very hard from far away. But does that make sense? From a more reflective moral perspective, that may just be a cognitive glitch.

TO: If we value everyone’s happiness equally, won’t we be overwhelmed by the suffering of others?
JG: Utilitarianism is inherently pragmatic—in fact, I prefer to call it “deep pragmatism.” Humans have real limitations, obligations, and frailties, so the best policy is to set reasonable goals, given your limitations. Just try to be a little less tribalistic.

TO: Given our evolutionary heritage, could we ever really adopt this meta-morality?
JG: There is no guarantee, but what is the alternative? To keep going with our gut reactions and pounding the table? To try to come up with some Kantian theory to deduce right and wrong from first principles, like moral mathematicians? The question is not, is this guaranteed to work? The question is, do you have a better idea?

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Tiffany O'Callaghan is the Culturelab editor at New Scientist.