Guest Post: Are dilemmas really useful for analysing moral judgment?
Pedro Jesús Pérez Zafrilla.
Lecturer in Moral Philosophy.
Department of Moral Philosophy.
(University of Valencia)
The development of neurosciences has had a major impact on the field of philosophy. In this respect, Spanish philosophy is no exception. In particular, the Valencia School led by Adela Cortina has played a leading part in the momentum of neuroethics in Spain. Our research has included the tackling of various areas such as human enhancement, free will or moral psychology. My intention in this post is to briefly present a critique referring to cognitive psychology. Specifically, I want to argue that moral dilemmas are not an appropriate method of analysing moral judgment. In my opinion dilemmas are misrepresentations of the way in which people form their moral judgments.
Dilemmas are tragic situations with only two possible and incompatible responses. The subject has to choose one and reject the other. There is no possibility of seeking alternative responses. In fact, the word “dilemma” comes from the Greek lémma, which means “anything received or taken” and the prefix dis, meaning “two”. Thus, “dilemma” means “to choose between two”.
Dilemmas such as those used in the field of cognitive psychology are arbitrary representations composed by scientists with a few variables. The objective is to create a tragic situation with only two possible solutions. Sometimes psychologists modify variables within a dilemma (such as the trolley problem) in order to provoke different responses in the individuals facing these new but equally tragic versions.
Nevertheless, a more careful examination of the way in which subjects make moral judgments shows that the dilemmatic method of cognitive psychology does not appropriately tackle moral evaluation. In real life, subjects do not make moral judgments facing laboratory dilemmas nor do they choose between two concrete pre-set options. The field of moral evaluation corresponds rather to what we might call problems. These can have multiple solutions based on a comprehensive set of circumstances which people take into account.
Etymologically the term “problem” comes from the Greek problema, meaning “put forth”. This term is derived from the prefix pro (forward) and the verb ballein (to throw). The problem is that which is in front of us and requires a response. But the problem does not lay down that there should be only two possible solutions. Problems are always an open situation, whose solution is not given in advance.
The central idea is that the response to a problem is not reduced to a choice between preselected alternatives. In the face of a moral problem, various alternative courses of action are open depending on the circumstances the subject is experiencing. This is because a person morally evaluates according to the context surrounding them. A variation in the context will also vary the alternative courses of action open to the person and the decision they finally take. Thus, problems are solved based on the values of individuals and reflection on the facts. The response to the problem will be that most appropriate to the given circumstances and those things most valued by the subject. In addition, it is necessary in moral life to be familiar with the greatest number of circumstances in order to find the best solution to problems. Because moral reality is full of nuances and cannot be confined by abstract dilemmas devised by psychologists in a laboratory.
An example to illustrate the moral problem and the complexity of moral evaluation could be the following: the president of a company asks a manager to participate in illegal transactions to increase profits. In exchange, the manager will receive additional payment. But if she refuses, she will be dismissed. To reduce this scenario to a dilemma would be erroneous for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, because in real life the motives that would lead the manager to make a decision might be various: the manager might reject the proposal because of her moral principles; or because she does not believe that the boss’s plan can succeed. Or perhaps she would accept the proposal out of fear of losing her job or because she would like to earn more money. But above all, it would be a mistake to think that the alternative courses of action are in reality reduced to two opposites (collaborate and commit a crime or do not collaborate and lose her job). Other options are possible: the manager could threaten to report everything she knows to the police, if the president goes ahead with his illegal plans or if he fires her. The manager’s decision will be influenced by various factors such as her moral principles, her economic and family situation, her position in the company, the information received, or the trust she has in the president, among others. And in the end, the decision she takes will depend on which aspects weigh more in her evaluation of the situation. Because a decision will always be taken after an evaluation of the circumstances. So the factors people take into account when they evaluate reality are varied which means that possible courses of action are also varied.
This would happen in the case of the trolley problem. If the footbridge problem arose in reality, the decision whether or not to throw the heavy person onto the track would not be determined by physical contact with the person. Other variables absent from the formulation of the dilemma would influence, such as the person’s fear of being accused of murder or how well he knew the obese person or the workmen working on the track. Thinking that these and other factors are mere post hoc confabulations and that the factor of physical contact alone influences the decision is simply not to recognise the complexity of moral judgment. This could also be applied to the situations presented by Hauser relating to, for example, drinking juice from a sterilised used urinal. Perhaps a person would not drink from there in normal conditions. But in a different context she might not mind doing it. For example, if she had been lost in the desert for two days without water.
So in moral life subjects form their judgments on what is correct and make their decisions based on various aspects of reality. Because moral judgment is always conducted within an open and rationally considered context. In the face of this, the dilemmas employed in cognitive psychology force subjects to choose between two equally tragic situations in which there is nothing morally better. These situations are created limiting the variables that the person can take into account, thus forgetting the richness of the moral world. That is why the dilemmatic method, which mutilates reality in order to fit it into an arbitrary scheme, is a mistake.
Finally, there are two other aspects open to criticism when considering dilemmas in the field of cognitive psychology. On the one hand, that the dilemmas represent imaginary situations. On the other hand, the fact that the dilemmas are presented to the subjects in a laboratory, an atmosphere remote from the taking of real decisions. Both facts provoke a completely arbitrary response in the subject, thus the response lacks moral sense.
For all these reasons, the use of dilemmas to analyse moral judgments is problematic. This method employed by cognitive psychology is reductionist and incapable of recognising the complexity of moral reality. This circumstance should lead us to reconsider the normative value of cognitive psychology.
Cortina, Adela (2011). Neuroética y neuropolítica. Sugerencias para la educación moral. Madrid: Tecnos.
Gracia, Diego (2000). “La deliberación moral. El papel de las metodologías en la ética clínica”. In J. Sarabia y M. De los Reyes (eds.). Comités de ética asistencial. Madrid: Asociación de Bioética Fundamental y Clínica, pp.21-41.