Would you kill the Fat Man?

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trolleyBy Bob Bailly

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the concepts of neuromarketing – a predictive model that uses findings from the sciences concerning the brain (neuroscience and psychology) to improve sales and communication skills.

It’s based upon the simple concept that human decisions are made in the most primitive (from an evolutionary perspective) parts of our brains ­– aptly described as our “old” or “reptilian” brain.

We know this because neuroscientists have been able to identify how our brains function under a wide range of activities using modern diagnostic equipment; they can now see what the physical effects are as various regions of our brains work, play, think and conjure. The biology observed from these electro-chemical reactions is truly amazing in its complexity and design, yet  all we are really “seeing” are the electro-chemical indicators of a brain at work – we really don’t have a clue what makes a brain into a mind. In reality, neuroscientists and philosophers don’t even really have any clear understanding of what a thought really is. We know what our minds can do, we know that the origination of thought comes from our brains, but frankly the understanding and language to describe the link between brain and mind does not currently exist.

So why is this important to business people today? Simply put, if we can better predict how our brains operate in certain situations, then perhaps we can make better decisions.

With this in mind a recent book review in The New York Times caught my eye. It was by Sara Bakewell and the book, by David Edmonds. was Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer tells us about Right and Wrong. It discusses a classic thought problem originally designed by moral philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and modified by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The original experiment goes something like this: You are near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it and an out-of-control trolley car speeding toward them. Beside you is a switching lever. With a pull on this lever, you can divert the trolley onto a side track and save the five, but unfortunately you will kill another person who is tied to that track. What would you do?

Now consider this variation of the experiment. Once again you are near a trolley track with an out-of-control car speeding toward five people on the track. This time, however, there is no side-track but there is a very large man within arm’s reach between you and the track the train is running on. You could stop the train and save the five people by pushing him onto the tracks, but he would die. Jumping in front of the train yourself would be of no use as you are too small. What would you do?

In each case, one person dies at your hand to save five. In the first instance, most people say they would pull the lever, feeling that it is better that five people live and one person die rather than the other way around. In the second, however, most people would not push the fat man.

When the problem was first proposed, Professor Foot was concerned with this question: What role does reason play in motivating moral behaviour? From what I’ve been able to understand about her writing, she believed that we are not inherently moral, but that social structure and motivation can make morality binding in a sense, but only because it makes moral norms feel inescapable.

For our brains, it isn’t as easy as five lives for one

Take the two examples that make up the trolley problem. On the surface, the consequences of both actions are the same: one person dies, five survive. More specifically, in both examples five people live as the result of one person’s death. At first, both may seem to be justified, but most people, when asked which of the two actions is permissible — pulling the lever or pushing the man onto the tracks — say that the former is permissible, the latter is forbidden.

Philosophers from Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant, to modern practitioners such as Foot and Thompson have had field day with ethical and moral problems such as these for good reason. While the trolley is speculation, it wasn’t when Churchill ordered British Intelligence to deliberately mislead German V-1 rocket bombardments from central London to southern suburbs. And it isn’t esoteric philosophy when U.S. commanders order drone missile strikes on foreign soil to kill terrorists knowing there will be civilian casualties. I suggest modern managers face a similar dilemma when circumstances force a reduction in employees.

Still, that book review I mentioned at the beginning of this piece intrigued me not because of the philosophical arguments, but rather because it hinted that there is an evolutionary and neuroscientific underpinning about this topic that might shed light on how we make these decisions.

The reason we have difficulty with pushing a man to his death is that it reveals a distinction between killing a person and letting a person die. According to Joshua Greene of Princeton University, we can actually see the parts of the brain that are active in making these distinctions. He has been using MRIs in conjunction with the Trolley problem among other moral paradoxes and he’s discovered that pulling a lever activates the same regions of the brain as deciding whether to take a bus or train to work. In other words, the thought of pulling a switch that will dispatch one person to save five appears to be governed along the lines of reason and problem solving.

In the case of pushing a man onto the tracks, however, distinctly different parts of the brain are activated, including areas responsible for empathy and strong emotions. And in fact it is likely this combination of brain activity that constitutes our moral judgment.

Extolling the brilliance of Greene’s work is Peter Singer, whose essay Ethics and Intuitions sheds considerable light on these phenomena. For most of our evolutionary history, he argues, pre-human primates and humans have lived in small groups, and “violence could only be inflicted in an up-close and personal way – by hitting, pushing, strangling, or using a stick or stone as a club. To deal with these situations, we have developed immediate, emotionally based responses to questions involving close, personal interactions with others. The thought of pushing the stranger … elicits these emotionally based responses. Throwing a switch … bears no resemblance to anything likely to have happened in the circumstances in which we and our ancestors lived. Hence the thought of doing it does not elicit the same emotional response as pushing someone (to their death).”

Singer continues: “But what is the moral salience of the fact that I have killed someone in a way that was possible a million years ago, rather than in a way that become possible only 200 years ago? I would answer: none.”

“There is little point in constructing a moral theory designed to match considered moral judgments that themselves stem from our evolved responses to the situations in which we and our ancestors lived … We should, with our current powers of reasoning and our rapidly changing circumstances, be able to do better than that.”

Intuition vs. reason

Unfortunately, even though he means we should try to move our decision from the intuitions of the old brain to a reasoned approach of cognitive brains, he acknowledges that this still may be based on intuition. Interestingly, the “intuition that tells us that the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five is not like the intuitions that tell us we may throw the switch, but not push the stranger.” He calls this a “rational intuition” and “seems worth attempting, for it is the only way to avoid moral skepticism.”

So I’m going to have to buy Would You Kill the Fat Man? if for no other reason than it might help explain some of the fascinating stuff I’ve already discovered. For example, women are less likely than men to sacrifice the Fat Man, or even to flip the lever. Other investigations determined that people are more likely to approve the killing of the Fat Man if they have just seen a comedy clip as opposed to a “tedious documentary.” And as I wrote in a previous blog, a judge’s decision to grant parole depends upon how long it’s been since he or she has eaten. What does any of this have to do with a moral sense of right or wrong? I’m really not sure.

But it does continue to reinforce my belief that decision-making is highly influenced by ancient evolutionary forces, and modern business and political decisions must be assumed to be affected by them. If not, how else do we explain torture, genocide or the fiscal collapse?

Not sure how you feel about all this? Then why not take this online test – Would you kill the fat man?

I’d love to hear what you think.

Image: Barron’s


  • Tony Lyons

    December 11, 2013 4:17 pm

    I love this stuff, great article thanks. There’s a ton of fascinating research on this topic happening in Ottawa at The Royal’s Institute for Mental Health Research. Dr. Georg Northoff is the pre-eminent authority on the brain, mind and self.

    I’ve actually heard neuroscientists talk about our ‘two brains’ the old and new, and how – just as you say – they function in different ways. At the end of the day, there’s still a ton of guesswork as neuroscience is in its infancy. However, as a marketer what we should take away is that to illicit a response we need to pull emotional triggers, because every decision we humans make is ultimately an emotional one.

  • Vic Hender

    December 12, 2013 11:01 am

    Very cool stuff Bob. Of course one would have to live with him/herself with the decision of pushing the Fatman and in wondering whether he/she was indeed “too small” to have the same impact in saving the other lives. :)

  • Jessica Abt

    December 13, 2013 10:57 am

    Very interesting Bob. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bob Bailly

    December 13, 2013 12:40 pm

    Thanks for all your comments. It’s actually great to know someone is actually reading this stuff.

    What fascinates me about the research however, is that an action committed at a distance is less emotional than a close confrontation. My next adventure with this is to think about any takeaways for social marketers. (Are you really committed to something when you sign up on-line, or when you are on the front line; or why is it easier to lie by email rather than face to face?) More to come. And keep those cards and letters coming in.

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