Saturday, August 19, 2006

Moral dilemmas and what they tell us about moral development

There is an interesting article on Rationality Vs. Emotivity influence in moral decisions and a commentary on the same by Thinking Meat.

As per that article, different decisions are reached in a situation that mandates one to choose a life of one person vis-a-vis that of 5-6 other people, depending on how the situation and moral action to be taken is presented. The hypothetical situation is that of a train/trolley running on a track and 5-6 people unaware of the impending train on the tracks ahead.

In one version of the situation, you can press a lever to divert the train to another track, on which only one person is present, and thus save 5-6 lives by compromising on one life. Most people, when the situation is presented thus, opt for the option of pressing the lever.

In the second version, you can push another person on the track, so that his impact will slow the train down and thus lead to saving of the other 5-6 people down the track. In this situation people usually choose not to throw the person on the track. Also experiments have revealed that emotional centers of the brain are engaged while making this decision.

While some theorizing is going on that the (imagined) action of pushing is not preferred due to the emotional reality of touching and pushing someone to end his life and that this particular (imagined) feeling leads to the decision not to throw the person on the track, let us focus more on the rational or deliberative part of the decision making.

It would be instructive to get familiar with Kohlberg's excellent Moral Development Stage theory for further discussion.

From the point of consequences , the two situations are the same. One life vs many lives and the choice lying with the user (you). Also, perhaps equal societal punishment or recognition based on your choice. Thus, any Moral reasoning employing piaget's first stage or Kohlberg's first stage focusing on reasoning on the basis of consequences or societal punishment/rewards does not solve the dilemma as to why one would act differently in two situations. In both situations, one may be guided by a 'rule' or social dictum like that 'many lives are better than one live'.

From the point of self-interest and relativity(Kohlebrgs second stage), the dilemma doesn't make sense as neither the one person that needs to be sacrificed nor the many other that will be saved are either you or related to you. So the dilemma doesn't solve for a person on second stage. In both cases he should make the same choice based on self interest and that choice may be not making a choice (neither pushing the person, nor pressing the lever) and thus being saved of any consequences that result from the making of choice.

From the point of Conventional morality employing good interpersonal stage of reasoning (stage 3 of kohlberg) the question would now become rephrased as what a 'good' person would do. Also, in absence of information about whether the one person about to be sacrifice is 'good' or the 5-6 to be saved are 'evil' and should not be saved or vice versa, he has no rational basis to make decisions. The one factor that may influence his decision is the proximity of pushing a person down, which may not fit in with the self-perception as a good person and this may explain to a certain extent the skew towards not pushing a person to save lives of others. In this stage of thinking pushing a lever and pushing a person may have different connotations.

From the perspective of social order (stage four), this dilemma presents a challenge. Before deciding which way to act, one would need to deliberate on whether the social order demands that one life be sacrificed to save many more, whether one need to take life of someone to prevent deaths of many others (this can be framed as should a dangerous murder be sentenced to capital punishment) . Another deliberation can be what if all those whose life is at stake are innocent and differ only in the fact that sacrificing one innocent life early on can save many innocent lives later. This is the typical hostage scenario whereby you may have to release terrorists, in order to save an innocent life in the moment that is kept as hostage, only to discover later that this has resulted in many future deaths of victims of those terrorists. In such cases where one knows that one innocent life stands in balance for 5-6 innocent lives further downstream, one still has to make a decision and the consideration primarily is on what precedent it would set. How it affects social order. Would one start taking hostages often ? Thus, sacrificing one life may be the option chosen. These deliberations may lead to the insight that though it may be emotionally repelling one may need to push the person oneself in order to keep up the social tradition of saving maximum number of innocent lives.

From the point of Social Contract and Individual rights (the fifth stage), it may seem that the life of every single individual is very valuable and maybe equally valuable. One may gain insights as to the fact that no amount of property is as precious as even a single (human) life. If this dilemma involved a choice to blow the (goods) train that was carrying vast amounts of wealth in order to save all the lives involved, then one may choose that. As the question is currently framed, there is not much ground on which to decide whether to sacrifice one person or many others. One may deliberate on the greatest good for greatest number of people and thus chose to sacrifice one person, so that many others can see much more years. Again, one may take into account the fact that the one person to be sacrificed is child ( and has many more years of life) and thus needs to be saved in contrast to 5-6 people who are old ( and thus wont see much life). One may even employ the reverse analogy and see that one old man (who has vast amount of wisdom) needs to be saved as he is of greater use to humanity then a child in which one has not invested much. All these deliberations involve and individualistic regards as to the value of life and value of unrealized potential or accumulated experience. What is important is the reasoning involved.

I wont go to stage 6 (universal principles) as Kohlberg himself has sort of retracted the sixth stage, but would hint that from that stage the dilemma gets interesting with discussion of life as a means or life as an end coming into picture. This is mentioned in the original Boston Globe article and is what Hauser is elaborating on. As per Hauser, one may be utilizing a universal moral principle (like universal grammar of language) preceding any rational or emotive deliberation to resolve such conundrums. In this universal scheme Life as Ends may be more acceptable than life as Means. Framed this way given a choice between saving a child and saving an old man, one would always choose a baby (as he/she has more years of life (and end in itself) ) over the old person. Only when one treats Life as a means of achieving something (knowledge? ) one may value an old person over a baby.

But before concluding , I would like to link these stages of moral development with my own theories of 8-stage development.

The first stage is based on finding out rules of society and are authority based. The cognitive task is to find correct associations between behaviors and results (punishment/rewards) and find an accurate view of how the Reality out there is. A similar development process leads to attainment of Trust (knowing that rewards are in plenty) in child's development in Erikson theory. In moral development one develops capacity to link consequences to actions.

The second stage is based on seeing things from ones own point of view and is based on self-interest. One realizes points of view of others , but does not empathizes and is more of a deal making attitude. The cognitive task is to choose for oneself what would benefit one the most. In eriksons framework this leads to Autonomy (will) whereby one can decide for oneself. In Moral Development this takes the form of graduating from society's dictums to a relativist position whereby one can choose what is beneficial to oneself in the moral sense (that is what fits one's morality). One develops the capacity to choose over different options/ viewpoints.

The third stage is based on focusing on how the moral decisions is governed by interpersonal relationships. Here concepts like 'goodness' , empathy, motives become important. One starts thinking in terms of effects ones actions have on others and vice versa. This cause-and-effect interactionist view that goodness is an end in itself and that what goes around come back governs many of the moral decisions. The Cognitive task is to understand and appreciate the effects of one's actions on others. In erikson's framework this takes the form of Initiative or Purpose whereby one tries to co-operate with others and either lead or follow to accomplish goals. In Moral Development this takes the form of realizing that one has the capacity to do good and one should use that capacity.

The Fourth stage is based on focusing on maintaining the social order. One again gets obsessed with societal laws and more, but now does not see them as rules to be followed, but norms which the society has and which are for the good of the society. Thus, these 'good' norms are internalized and ones moral thinking behavior geared around maintaining the norms so that society can function as a whole optimally. The concept of Social duty forms and one feels obliged to return to society what one gets from it. The Cognitive task involved are to understand that one is part of a bigger society, to understand the complexities involved in social interactions and to learn the fragility of social fabric and the need to preserve it as the social fabric is responsible for the large amount of learning that individual suffers by indirect means like observational learning. In Erkison's stages one develops Industry or a sense of competence that they can also work as effective members of a social group. They learn to follow rules followed by their peers or self-imposed by themselves as part of games etc. In the Moral Development this takes the form of realization that one has some moral duties towards the society in which one lives.

The Fifth stage is characterized by focus on Social Contract and individual rights. On makes moral decisions based on the fact that one has voluntarily negotiated a social contract with others on ones' own terms that have included a strong focus on enjoying some rights as part of that social contract. Here, Kohlbergs notion of roles may be appropriate. One plays with different roles (as a moral agent) that one has to play while living in a society and instead of playing the role that his society may demand, turns the tables around and says that I as an individual be;live in these moral rights and duties and that this is my limited social contract with the society. In a sense one has defined one's role and negotiated a personal contract based on that role and feels that neither the individual nor the society-at-large is under any other moral obligations. The cognitive tasks involved are gaining insights into what moral action or thought that one believes in are and how one can consistently use those moral rules while living in a society. The discovery of a moral self is the culmination of these 5 stages of moral development. As an outcome one may end with a rigorous personalized set of moral rules. In Eriksons theory this is equivalent to the similar (ego)Identity achievement of a n adolescent whereby one plays with many roles before deciding on one that one plans to stick around with. In Moral Development this is akin to forming a strong, personal moral sense (self) vis-avis not having a particularly integral sense of having a personal moral sense / conscience.

It's interesting to draw parallels here with my earlier posts on Cognitive Maps whereby in stages 6, 7, 8, if the development is not proper one may regress to earlier stages and suffer from pathologies like regression, fixation or displacement to out groups. I propose that if after achieving a moral self if one does not continue to develop along quantitatively different next three moral stages, one may regress to earlier dysfunctional moral stage when faced with stress situations.

What these 6, 7 and 8 stages of moral development are? Wait for the next mail!! A tantalizing hint that 5th stage may involve another way of achieving moral-ego-integrity (more akin to how moral sense develops in females as per Gilligan) and the 6th stage may involve literally stepping in someone's else's shoes as if you are that person and then resolving a conundrum.

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