Recent work by David Pizarro at Cornell is shedding light the role that race and ethics play in politics, by asking people to sacrifice the lives of either Tyrone Payton or Chip Ellsworth III. OK, they didn't really have to sacrifice anyone, but each participant in the study was faced with a variation of the classical ethical dilemma called the "trolley problem." The trolley problem asks the question: Would you push someone on to the tracks (and kill them) to stop a trolley holding 100 people from crashing (and killing them all)? The paper (pdf) describes the twist that Pizarro and colleagues put on the trolley question when they asked it to California undergraduates:
Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra.
While the study didn't specifically mention each person's race, the researchers reasoned that "Tyrone" would be stereotyped as black, while "Chip" would be stereotyped as white. On the saving end, they assumed that the Philharmonic would be thought of as white, while the Harlem Jazz Orchestra would be assumed black.
When faced with this choice, each individual in the study group showed different reactions based on their political leanings--the liberals were more likely to sacrifice "Chip" to save the Orchestra, while conservatives were more likely to sacrifice "Tyrone" to save the Philharmonic. When describing the findings in a recent talk
Pizarro explained his interpretation of the findings:
If you’re wondering whether this is just because conservatives are racist—well, it may well be that conservatives are more racist. But it appears in these studies that the effect is driven [primarily] by liberals saying that they’re more likely to agree with pushing the white man and [more likely to] disagree with pushing the black man.
Pizzaro told David Dobbs of Wired Science that he thinks these results mean we actually have two different sets of morals, one relating to the action itself, and the other focused on its consequences:
“The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”
So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act—and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.
Related Content: Gene Expression: Experiments in Ethics Gene Expression: Means vs. Ends & morality 80beats: Magnetic Zaps to the Brain Can Alter People’s Moral Judgments
DISCOVER: Whose Life Would You Save?
DISCOVER: Is Morality Innate and Universal?