Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Runaway Trolley" Moral Problem

While working on my review of Dawkins' God Delusion book, I came across his enlightening discussion of a tangential issue, the famous "runaway trolley". Dawkins [pg 225] introduces an ingenious twist.

Dawkins (and I) believe Darwinian natural selection has ingrained some "moral universals". These "deep structures", like our inherent capacity to learn language, may vary a bit from culture to culture, but are evidence of a natural sense of right and wrong. The trolley example is designed to tease out this basic sense.

The traditional example assumes a trolley is running amuck along the main tracks and will kill five people if it is not switched onto a siding or stopped in some way.

1) A moral person, Denise, is standing by a track switch and could divert the trolley from the main line to a siding. Everyone would agree Denise should throw the switch to save the people.

2) However, there is one man on the siding, and he will be killed if she throws the switch. (Assume Denise does not know any of the potential victims and there is no time to warn them, etc.) What should she do? Should she kill one innocent person to save five innocents? Write down your answer and proceed as the example gets more and more difficult.

3) Alternatively, a moral person, Ned is on a bridge over the trolley tracks. If he could throw a large weight off the bridge onto the tracks, that would stop the trolley and save the lives of the five innocents. Everyone would agree he should throw the large weight off the bridge to save the people.

4) However, the only large weight available at the moment is a very fat man resting near the low railing and in a perfect position to be dropped to the tracks. Ned is strong enough to push him over and the man is certainly fat enough to stop the trolley. What should Ned do? Should he kill one innocent man to save five innocents? Write down your answer and proceed as the example gets more and more difficult.

5) Alternatively, a moral person, Oscar is standing by a track switch that could divert the trolley to another line. A large weight (say an empty stationary trolley) is parked on that line and would certainly stop the runaway trolley and save the innocents. Everyone would agree Oscar should throw the switch and have the runaway trolley crash into the large weight to save the people.

6) However, there is a hiker on the other line. Unlike the fat man thrown off the bridge, his body will not be used to stop the runaway trolley, but he will surely be killed. Should Oscar kill the innocent hiker to save five innocents? Write down your answer.

If you think Denise and Oscar should act, but Ned should not, you are with the vast majority of people surveyed. That this is a moral universal is attested to by the fact there was no statistically significant difference on this issue between religious and non-religious people. An analogous problem, featuring crocodiles and canoes, was posed to primitive tribesmen in Central America with similar results.

I'd appreciate discussion of why you think Ned should spare the fat man and condemn to death five equally innocent people. Why should Denise and Oscar "play God" and condemn one innocent to save five? Do you agree with Dawkins and me that there are certain "moral universals" that have been hard-wired into each of us by Darwinian evolution?

Ira Glickstein


LynnaeEtta said...

This may sound harsh, but the fact of the matter is, Denise and Oscar are not directly sacrificing the individuals walking on the alternate lines; said individuals are walking in a dangerous place of their own accord and perhaps shouldn't be.

Ned's case, however, requires directly and actively sacrificing another individual's life for the sake of the five. This is not acceptable.

On the other hand, if the fat man (or Ned!) willingly volunteered his own life to stop the trolley...

Ira Glickstein said...

LynnaeEtta - WELCOME back to active Commenting! It is great to know you have been "Lurking" along with an unknown number of people. I hope your posting gives more of them the courage to post a Comment and, for those who are Authors, start a New Main Topic.

I agree that Ned's case involves actively sacrificing another individual's life by pushing him over the edge of the bridge with your own hands. That seems much more messy and morally worse than just throwing a switch.

However, when we draft young men and send them overseas to fight our wars, is that not morally equivalent? We are selecting individuals who just happen to be in an opportune place (male, young and healthy) and forcing them to risk their lives to save our country and way of life and, ultimately, the lives of many more of their fellow countrymen. (This applies to the last "just" war, WWII, where the US drafted millions and where over 400,000 gave their lives. Fortunately, all US military personnel in the Iraq war are volunteers.)

What if Ned could save a thousand innocents in a theater by dropping that fat man on a suicide bomber who was about to enter?

In the cases of Denise and Oscar you place some of the blame on the individuals for walking along the siding or on the inactive line and accepting some personal responsibility for being in a potentially dangerous place. In a way, they are more at fault than the five innocents who happen to be on the active track because they are crossing the street on a green "walk" signal.

Would Denise's decision be different if the numbers were reversed? What if the switch was set for the runaway trolley to kill five people walking along the inactive track and our "moral agent" Denise switched it to kill one person who was crossing the street on a green "walk" sign? Is the rule always to save the most people?

Ira Glickstein

LynnaeEtta said...

Ira - Yes, I have been a lurker for some time now. Just waiting for the "right" topic, I guess. :)

This trolley analogy is difficult, and I think the could be carried on endlessly, with varying numbers of people in varying situations of certain death. I'm curious about the context in which Dawkins uses this example; is there a point beyond the "universal morality" he is trying to make? I ask because I am uneasy with the thought of Denise and Oscar as "moral agents" or "playing God"; when we label them in this way, it seems easier to make a "hard and fast" rule about the most moral decision in two very difficult scenarios.

I still see throwing someone else's life on the line as unacceptable, even to save 1,000 people from a suicide bomber. If that individual wants to sacrifice his/her own life, that's a different story, but taking someone else's life away from them for the security of others is immoral.

Regarding the draft, in our current geopolitical system, the nation state is responsible for the safety of its citizens; in return, citizens voluntarily surrender some of their individual freedoms to the authority of the state. I emphasize voluntarily because of the last point I made (taking someone else's life away for the sake of the masses is immoral). The way I see it, the draft could be considered a voluntarily-surrendered freedom; in order to protect the sovereignty and interest of our state abroad, some of our young people have to fight.

Not that I'm in favor of the draft, but I think it could be argued this way.

Ira Glickstein said...

LynnaeEtta asked the context of the runaway trolley example in Dawkin's book. It is in a section titled "The Roots of Morality", starting on pg 225, that focuses on Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, and his runaway trolley surveys and psychological experiments.

Dawkin's conclusion is that we do not need God to be good or evil, since these are inborn moral universals. He compares them to our inborn sexual drive and language ability.

I agree the capability to be a moral agent is inborn, but, like language and sexuality, how we express that capability is subject to considerable variation. If a child is exposed to oppressive sexuality, or faulty grammar, or criminal morality, he or she will most likely follow suit and teach the same to his or her children. I believe organized religion, like grammar school and social services for abused women, is a way to standardize and rectify our common morality.

Say you are in a rowboat with your mother, wife and daughter. It overturns and you can only save one of them. Most westerners will say to save the daughter because she is the youngest, the most innocent, and has the most to live for. However, it has been reported that a Muslim would save his mother because he has more wives, can have more children, but only has one mother!

The runaway trolley, as you say, can be posed in many variations. In some cases the decider is the motorman who must save or sacrifice himself and passengers at the cost of a greater or lesser number of pedestrians. Or, we might consider throwing the proverbial fat man out of a troubled airplane or lifeboat to save all the others, etc.

Of course, these are totally artificial problems and the survey responses may or may not mirror what actual people would do in any given situation. My wife's first reaction, when I posed it to her at Taco Bell this evening, was that she would not throw the switch -- unless it was to save her granddaughter! I did not ask her what she would do if I was on one of the tracks :^)

The value of this type of dilemma is to tease out generalized moral consensus that might apply to other situations, such as:

1) Approve a new drug that is the only way to save 99% of those who take it, but will unavoidably kill 1%

2) Raise (or lower) the speed limit 5 MPH which will increase (or decrease) deaths by 1%

3) Set up a legal system with checks and balances that would free 100 murderers rather than wrongly convict one innocent (even if statistics showed that 100 freed murderers would eventually kill 10 or more people).

As a utilitarian, I would "run the numbers" and select the alternative that would most likely save the most lives. I cannot understand why most people, despite religious faith or lack thereof, and despite being in a western culture or not, make one choice when throwing the track switch and a different one when dropping the fat man. (Of course, if my close relatives, or friends, or others with some affinity relationship were involved I would say "to hell with utilitarianism" :^)

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

There is an article “The Moral Instinct” by Stephen Pinker in last Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine that I’m using for my discussion group today. It explains why you make the moral choices you do.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for the link, where the runaway trolley is discussed starting on Page 2 near the bottom.

Here is a clickable link to that page:

This will give us more food for thought in continuing discussions of this Topic and related issues.

Please let us know how your discussion group thinks this one through.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Here is a link to the first page of the NYTimes Magazine article on The Moral Instinct by Steven Pinker that Howard mentioned:

It is well worth reading.

Why do people of virtually all cultures recoil at Ned pushing the innocent fat man off the bridge to save five innocents, yet applaud Denise for throwing the switch to condemn one innocent hiker to death and save five innocents?

The utilitarian math is the same but our conclusions are diametrically different!

Pinker tells us [pg 3] even thinking about killing someone with our bare hands lights up the emotional part of our brain and puts it into conflict with the rational "save as many innocents as possible" part, while thinkiing about throwing the switch only lights up the rational.

He also confirms that, like our inborn capability for language (which works only when we learn a particular language at a young age), a moral capability is inborn, but we still need to be indoctrinated with a particular set of moral values. There are five basic, inborn moral themes [pg 4]: 1) don't harm innocents, 2) be fair to others, 3) be loyal to the group, 4) respect authority and 5) exalt cleanliness and sanctity. We learn how to balance them according to the customs of our societies, leaders, and families.

Liberals, for example, put what Pinker calls "a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity." Conservatives place a moderately high weight on all [pg 5]. (I would call that L-Mind/C-Mind analysis "fair and balanced" :^)

Towards the end of this excellent article, Pinker contrasts traditional religious morality with an alternative based on science and reason. IMHO, even though God and other religious beliefs are not literally true, they capture lessons learned over centuries of actual human societal success and failure. The alternative, based on our knowledge of DNA and the "selfish gene" and pure reason is terribly brittle.

An example is The War Against Women segment of the most recent CBS "60 Minutes". Pure reason, and observation of Nature, argues that the most successful phenotypes (humans who are dominant) should have the most offspring to strengthen the gene pool. In apparent accordance with that reasoned lesson, victorious Congolese tribesmen systematically rape women and force the losing men to watch before killing them. From an abstract genetic viewpoint, rape and genocide are normal.

Ira Glickstein

PS: I think it is a nice coincidence that I chose to post the runaway trolley Topic to the Blog on the same day it was featured in the NYTimes Magazine, even though I don't subscribe to the NYTimes. Further "proof", if you need it, of an absolutely deterministic Universe :^)

joel said...

What luck! I'm planning on making a presentation at our philosophy club concerning dilemmas. You folks are doing some of the work for me. I've done a little searching on the internet and found a few things. One source says that there are really no such thing as moral dilemmas. They don't occur naturally. An example given is the film "Sophie's Choice." In that case, Sophie has to make the choice between her two daughters. The Nazi guards have contrived a situation such that one daughter must die and the other will live using the excuse that the children are half Jewish.. The point is that the guards are actually torturing Sophie and that the situation is unnatural. Such dilemmas don't really happen. The trolley car scenarios being discussed is unrealistic in the extreme. I don't disagree that such dilemmas are rare, but I believe they serve an important purpose in philosophy.

Einstein used thought experiments. They are highly contrived situations that never occur involving trains, beams of light, timers, elevators in space, etc. The purpose was to look at the possible outcomes and see which were rational. After settling on one possibility, realistic experiments were designed and carried out based upon the outcome of the "thought experiment." It seems to me that the highly contrived, unrealistic moral dilemma is a kind of thought experiment which allows us to examine the fundamental principles upon which the human brain makes moral decisions. From this point of view, constructing such hypothetical scenarios it a very important occupation.

I don't agree with Ira and Dawkins that there are certain moral universals wired into the brain. Posing moral dilemmas to people of different civilizations doesn't really make the point. There are African tribes within which punishing a murderer with death is unthinkable. Banishment is the highest penalty. Banishment may lead to death, but the tribe's hands are clean. I'm just saying that there is more than one way one can come up with the same decision especially if the decision is hypothetical. I think that what is universal is attitudes towards responsibility. Decisions which involve first person touching of the other individual engender maximum responsibility. If that individual is a child or related, the responsibility is maximum. A good thought experiment to illustrate my point is the following extreme case.

You live in a future society in which time travel is possible. You are assigned the task of traveling back to the year 1900 in which Hitler is only a toddler. How do you feel about putting a bullet through the child's head in order to save the lives millions of people all over the world. (A computer simulation shows no negative consequences on the future.) How about if little Hitler is sitting on a window ledge? Would you give him a little push? How about if he's sitting on the ledge and his mother is about to come back into the room? Would you delay her by jamming the door thus delaying her entry just long enough for the toddler to fall out of the window on is own, onto the pavement 4 floors below? Please notice that I'm not changing the ramifications or human cost/benefit ratio of the act. All I'm doing is making it psychologically easier and easier to do the deed by making the immoral action more and more remote from your hands. Finally, note that if the computer simulation shows that Hitler would have fallen off the ledge if a neighbor had not seen him through the partially open door. All you have to do is talk to her in the hallway in order to delay her a few seconds. The so-called trolley dilemma may actually be a case of variable degrees of remoteness rather than varying morality. With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel for adding to this discussion. Although you say you disagree with me and Dawkins on the human brain being wired for some moral universals, you apparently do accept a "universal" related to "responsibility":

Joel wrote: "I think that what is universal is attitudes towards responsibility. Decisions which involve first person touching of the other individual engender maximum responsibility. If that individual is a child or related, the responsibility is maximum."[Emphasis added]

Dawkins and virtually all biologists (and I) believe in Natural Selection at the GENE level ("The Selfish Gene"). As a consequence, we have "kin-altruism" whereby animals are wired to risk their lives to favor others who share the same genes (particularly identical sisters as in ants and other eusocial insects, but also human siblings and other blood relatives).

"Reciprocal-altruism" is also wired where conspecifics (animals of the same species) and those of different species in symbiotic relationships, such as dogs and humans, take personal risks to help each other survive and reproduce.

Howard's and my former Binghamton University colleague David Wilson also believes in Natural Selection at the GROUP level, which Dawkins seems to reject.

David Wilson also argues for what I would term "true altruism" at the group level, which I doubt. IMHO, what appears to be true altruism is actually a generalization or misfiring of either kin- or reciprocal altruism.

Until relatively recent times, both kin and reciprocal partners lived their entire lives in close geographical proximity. Therefore, since it is impossible to remember all individuals we come in contact with, as a low-cost shortcut, animals are wired to cooperate and even take risks for conspecifics and for other species that they observe their parents cooperating with (and fear and attack all others, particularly those they observe their parents fearing and attacking).

Humans are wired to divide others into "in-group" and "out-group". If someone is "in-group" we are wired for the five moral themes: (1) not to harm them, (2) be fair to them, (3) be loyal to our group, (4) respect those in authority, and (5) follow group customs regarding sanctity. We are wired for xenophobia towards "out-group" people who we may harm, cheat, attack, kill their leaders, and trample upon what they hold dear.

Based on this analysis, your Comment (quoted above) is RIGHT ON! You mention "personal touching" as the meridian of "responsibility". We generally touch only those "in group". That is why it is easier to bomb or shell the enemy from afar, where you can't see individuals. It is also easier to shoot than push another off a bridge, etc. Absent touching or eye contact, they remain "out group" and we are not obligated to apply the five themes.

The problem with pushing the proverbial fat man off the bridge is exactly what you say, personal responsibility associated with touching. I think it would be easier for us to order our assistant to push him. It would be even easier to lift a drawbridge to throw him off, etc.

One of the variants of the runaway trolley has five victims spaced out and tied to a rail loop. The trolley is set to go round the loop in a clockwise direction and it will kill each victim in turn, ending with the fat man. If you throw the switch, the trolley will enter the loop the other way and the fat man will be the first victim, stopping the trolley and saving the others. This is an easy choice because it does not involve personally touching the fat man.

You also mention "related" as a concern. If one of the potential victims was a beloved relative or friend, and if the others were strangers, we would tend to switch the trolley to save them.

In yet another variant, the decider is the motorman of the trolley. If he throws the switch one way, he kills a loved one (or crashes into a barrier killing himself). The other way kills more people.

In other variants the victims are strangers, but identified by group. Most of us would choose to kill a large group of prisoners to save a smaller group of civilians, or adults to save children.

LynnaeEtta identified the person on the siding as assuming some responsibility by being in a dangerous place. By putting him in an "out-group" we are justified in throwing the switch to kill him to save the others.

We also consider the group the decider belongs to. More people say throw the switch if the decider is the motorman or a trolley company switchman than if the decider is a mere bystander

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Thanks, Howard, for the link to the articles by Pinker. Although I don't agree. The essays are very useful in understanding the argument for a genetic basis for moral judgment. I'll repeat the link so others don't have to search back.
With respect -Joel

joel said...

Ira said:

Dawkins (and I) believe Darwinian natural selection has ingrained some "moral universals". These "deep structures", like our inherent capacity to learn language, may vary a bit from culture to culture, but are evidence of a natural sense of right and wrong. The trolley example is designed to tease out this basic sense.

Joel replies:

I don't think you can say the above logically. The above analogy says that we are genetically wired with the CAPACITY for language, but then goes on to say this is similar to a "natural sense of right and wrong." Being "wired" with a natural sense of right and wrong is NOT like being wired with a CAPACITY for language. It would be like being born knowing a particular language. Obviously the latter is not the case. If you want to say that we are born with the CAPACITY to learn a set of principles called right and wrong, then the statement is trivial. We are born with a capacity for everything we learn or do. This solves the nature or nurture problem trivially by saying "All nurture depends on the existence of genetic capacity to learn."

Is it appropriate to say we are wired with the capacity to ride a bike? I think that we can all agree that we are wired with the brain structures associated with processing data coming in from the middle ear and the eyes. However, it takes "nurture" or learning in order to integrate that feedback with the motor functions associated with balancing a bicycle. If Dawkins wants to say that specific notions of right and wrong are prewired, I think he's got a tough task to prove anything like that. If by "deep structures" he only means the sense of identity, the sense of "the other" and the sense of consequences, etc., then I think he hasn't said much. Furthermore, a general theory must be able to handle every case.

The "hard wired morals" theory would certainly seem to fail for 16th century Hawaiians who engaged in incest and killed newborns who were imperfect. This behavior would seem to be an example of moral principles created to fit the specific situation of a small island population with limited genetic resources. The much larger population of polynesians from which the Hawaiians are derived had no such practices. Since I haven't read Dawkins work on this subject, I look forward to a further elaboration by Ira, of what may simply be my misunderstanding of the hypothesis.

With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel wrote: "Since I haven't read Dawkins work on this subject, I look forward to a further elaboration by Ira, of what may simply be my misunderstanding of the hypothesis."

Virtually all animal traits and behaviors are due to a combination of "nature" (genes) and "nurture" (nutrition, stimulation, exposure to memes, etc.) Even skin color, which some people may say is totally genetic, is affected, to some extent, by nutrition and environmental exposure to the sun. By the same token, language and morals, which some, including you, may say is totally memetic, is affected, to some extent by our genetic makeup.

A simple case is songbirds, where, if a chick is raised in audio isolation, it will nevertheless sing a crude version of its species song. Clearly the notes and tones of the song depend upon the genetically-determined structure of the vocal cords, throat, mouth, and beak. The organization of the parts of the bird's brain responsible for singing are also genetically-determined. The basic "grammar" and pattern of the song is inborn. Each sub-group of the species learns from its parents to sing an elaborated version that is used to identify members of that sub-group.

Although you and I may rightly think Noam Chomsky's political ideas are totally whacko, he is recognized as a great linguist. According to :

"One of the most important of Chomsky's ideas is that most of this knowledge [human ability to speak and understand] is innate, with the result that a baby can have a large body of prior knowledge about the structure of language in general, and need only actually learn the idiosyncratic features of the language(s) it is exposed to."

A simple example is given by two sentences:

1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
2) Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Both are meaningless, but (1) is clearly recognized as grammatical.

Similarly, Dawkins and Pinker and I believe that there are deep structures of morals embedded, by evolution, in our brains. Humans, like nearly all primates, are social animals. Those whose genetically-determined temperaments and attitudes and behaviors fit best within tribes generally survived and reproduced at higher rates than those lacking such traits.

"Antisocial personality disorder" (PC-speak for "psychopathy" and "sociopathy") generally develops in early childhood and is almost certainly largely genetic, although maternal deprivation and having an anti-social father are also factors. It seems the parts of the brain that process empathy and warm emotions are under-performing. These capabilities are the "grammar", so to speak, of moral socialization necessary for the five moral themes outlined by Pinker.

We have to be careful about moral absolutes. Moral behavior only applies to the "in-group", however defined, and its purpose is to strengthen our group in competition with the "out-group".

We adjust our definition of "in-group" according to the situation. We may expand our "in-group" to include foreigners when we form a coalition and cooperate with other nations when necessary to defeat some enemy coalition. We may exclude some members of our own society. For example, as you point out, in an island culture like early Hawaii, it was beneficial to society to kill imperfect babies. As a drain on limited resources, they constituted an "out-group".

In the runaway trolley, most people define the lone person on the siding as "out-group", saying he assumed some responsibility for being in a dangerous place, and then recommending we throw the switch to kill him to save the "in-group" people crossing the street on a green light. It would be more difficult to throw the switch if the people on the main track were jaywalkers and the lone man on the siding was there for some legal purpose.

The problem with pushing the fat man off the bridge is not only the fact we have to touch him, but that he is "in-group" with us, not involved in the trolley situation, and faultless. If we identified him as a known criminal, or a laggard, or terminally ill, or a lawyer, etc., he would become "out-group" and it would be easier to say we would push him over. (In actuality, I think most of us would just stand by and do nothing, unless we knew one of the potential victims. In doing so, we would define them as "unlucky strangers" and exclude them from our "in-group".)

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Both Joel’s and Ira’s arguments sound fine to me. The problem is that we don’t have experiments that clearly separate instincts from learning, very likely because there is no clear separation. I am sure I have many conflicting instincts that are not only irrational but also unanalyzable. Why don’t I exercise and diet more? Like St. Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I think Pascal had a similar feeing: “What a chimera, then, is man? What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, helpless earthworm, depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error. Glory and scum of the universe.”

I think Pascal was an emotional religious fanatic as well as being a sharp rational thinker. His brain may have been somewhat chaotic, but so are the brains of many creative people. Too bad Pascal and Spinoza didn’t have a blog site that we could access.

joel said...

Ira said,

A simple example is given by two sentences:

1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
2) Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Both are meaningless, but (1) is clearly recognized as grammatical.

Joel responds:

I'm sorry to have to disagree with the great Chomsky, but I don't find (2) ungrammatical in English save for a few expression marks and a context. I wouldn't be shocked if some tribe actually speaks that way. It may seem a bit poetic to us, but even (or especially) Shakespeare might accept: Furiously sleep ideas; green ...colorless. Daylight shows their flesh; vivid ...conflicted. I think Chomsky's linguistic reputation...nevermind.

With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

In a bit of a tangential excursion, Joel asks if it would be moral, given time-travel, to have gone back to 1900 and killed the toddler who was to become Hitler. He adds: "(A computer simulation shows no negative consequences on the future.)"

As an absolute determinist, I don't believe we will ever be able to change the past (or the future :^). Also, I do not believe any computer simuation would be able to predict with any certainty the consequences of eliminating the toddler Hitler. However, thinking about changing the past can be beneficial to our analysis of what a moral person should do in the future.

I believe it would be moral to eliminate Hitler when he was a totally innocent baby IF we knew in detail what he would accomplish in the future and IF we could trust some computer simulation that predicted no negative consequences - two very big IFs!

While individual humans do change history, I believe some hisorical trends and conflicts are much larger than any specific individuals. Absent Hitler, the fledgling Nazi party would have chosen a leader and he would have been more or less capable, more or less cruel, etc. The result might have been a stronger Germany that would have won WWII, or a weaker or more cautious Germany that would have lost more quickly or not gotten into the war in the first place.

A better thought experiment is to go back to the failed plot by some German generals to blow Hitler up. Had we been able to move that briefcase a couple of feet, he would have died and someone else, probably a military man, would have assumed power. Would that man have pursued the war more effectively than the sometimes irrational Hitler, or would he have sued for peace? Would the US and UK have accepted less than unconditional surrender, perhaps in return for a combined assault on Stalin's Communist dictatorship? Even in this far simpler thought experiment, no one can be sure of the ultimate result.

With respect to Iraq, many Americans believe one or more of the following:

1) Bush I should have "finished the job" and marched to Baghdad in the first Iraq war.

2) Bush II should not have taken us into the second Iraq war.

3) Rumsfeld should have followed Gen. Shinseki's advice and put more troops on the ground to better handle the insurrection after we took Baghdad.

4) Bremmer's decision to disband the Iraqi Army and get rid of even lower-level Baath Party government officials was too far-reaching and it would have been better to only get rid of the top level.

I happen to believe (3) and (4) but there is no way to prove that case. (3) would have put more troops on the ground and they could have been agressively deployed to quell the post-invasion chaos, but that would most likely have sharply raised US casualties in the first months. That might have shortened the post-invasion violence and reduced overall US casualties -or- it might have drawn us in deeper and/or turned the American public against the war sooner. No one will ever know. (4) would have reduced the numbers of jobless Iraqi soldiers and bureaucrats and thus deprived the insurrection of manpower -or- it might have pitted US soldiers against a more organized professional Sunni-led Iraqi Army and Sunni bureaucrats and made matters worse.

Rumsfeld was seduced by technology and western-oriented reason to believe a "light footprint" invasion would allow us to get in and out rapidly and that the supposedly secular Iraqis would recognize that their oil revenues could finance an improved life for all. He was wrong. But, that does not prove that any of the alternatives would have been better.

As Carville said "IF ifs and buts were beer and nuts, we could have one hell of a party!"

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira said that Dawkins et al said:

These "deep structures", like our inherent capacity to learn language, may vary a bit from culture to culture, but are evidence of a natural sense of right and wrong. The trolley example is designed to tease out this basic sense.

Joel responds:

Continuing on the subject of "deep structures," I'd like to discuss how deep they might be. In the case of language, they are very indirectly related. The data concerning vibrations entering the ear has a lot of processing to undergo before it can become language. These are the deep brain structures at work. They probably have their origin in a primitive need to identify the nature of a sound and to locate-track prey or predators. They're present in virtually all animals, not just man. One can see that these capabilities are directly related to survival and are inherited genetically. However, we can also see that when we get to the level of encoding and decoding language, no matter how valuable such a capability might be, it is extremely inefficient to try to develop language capability using genetic memory. In the same way, moral concepts of right and wrong are not likely to be developed genetically except in some very special special but very important cases. The behavior of alpha males both with respect to dominance and with respect to treatment of pack members is most likely genetic. The behavior of mothers with respect to children is genetic. The behavior of aunts may also be genetic. However, most other behaviors are mimicked (or memetic if you like). Social behavior among primates tends to arrange itself to accommodate the behavior of the alpha male and female. Rather than making broad statements concerning genetic behavior of the entire population, I suggest that Dawkins ought to look at a smaller group (the alphas). Certain "moral" principles may be inherited along with dominance itself. For instance, Thou shalt not kill unless challenged or Thou shalt share food with the rest of the pack. Morals tied to heritable dominance may then be socially imitated by the rest of the pack.
By the way, Ira pointed out a similarity to bird song behavior in which there are some very rough hard-wired templates upon which a song is developed by social learning. I came across an excellent references in this domain.