Moral Topology

Here’s a moral puzzle that’s supposed to be easy:  A runaway train is about to pass through a switch, which is currently set to shunt the train onto a track where 10 people are currently trapped, with no chance of escape.  But the switch could instead throw the train down a second track, where there’s just one person in the path.  Your hand is on the lever.  Do you divert the train?

Kill one person, save ten.  Easy?

Now, same puzzle, but the one person on the second track is your child.

This is supposed to be hard.  But I think, in the context I last heard this thought experiment (a new podcast called Future Perfect, which so far is pretty great, even if this introduction might not be selling it), it’s only supposed to be hard because you “know” from the first puzzle what the “right” answer is, but you also know you don’t want to do the “right” thing in the second case.

I guess this is where I confess that I’m not the kind of perfect moral being that can translate the abstract acknowledgement that my child isn’t objectively more worthy than ten strangers into so I will kill my child in order to save ten strangers.

But what kind of moral perfection would that be, anyway? 

How about one more scenario?  Some other stranger is the one holding the lever.  Their child is alone on the one track.  My child is among the ten on the other track.  The parent holding the lever saves their child and mine is now dead, along with nine others.  How do judge the person that killed my child?

Maybe I say they did wrong, thus revealing my principle to be only “my child is more important than anyone else.”  Or maybe I say they did right, and my principle is “parents should value their children more than strangers.”  I don’t want to live in a world where it’s “right” for a parent to kill their own child to save a bunch of strangers.

Thankfully, choices like this don’t tend to come up quite so starkly in normal life.

No, normal life is much more complicated, largely because so few things are so binary.  Spending $70 to go out to dinner could mean $70 I didn’t give to the food bank or $70 I didn’t spend on nutrition packets to save the lives of starving children, but it could more easily mean $70 I didn’t put in my savings account or $70 I don’t have for a babysitter next week, or a new pair of shoes, or a parking ticket.  I didn’t decide to go out to dinner after someone told me, no way around it, you can choose to have this meal, but the price is dead children.  And, even though I’m really good at guilt-tripping myself, I don’t think I’ve ever had quite that clear and macabre a thought while out for dinner.

Even the guy on the podcast, the one who says the second train puzzle is as easy to answer “correctly” as the first (and seems pretty sure we all agree with him about the correctness of the answer, even if we don’t agree with the easiness of doing it), sounds like he lives a pretty normal life, although he does give 10% of his income to carefully chosen charities and donated a kidney to a stranger.  Perfect equality isn’t popular, isn’t possible (I suppose you could argue that a giant asteroid impact or nuclear annihilation would make us all equal in sudden death, but I’m not going to), and doesn’t seem like what any of us really want, anyway.

So maybe the train puzzle is too simple. I mean, it’s maybe in one dimension?  Presented as binary yes/no, but we could pretty easily imagine it as a line, numbers of strangers on the track.  Maybe the question is which point on the line tips you from “save my child” to “kill my child”.  Maybe your line just goes to infinity, although there’s some point at which, with no other humans left alive on Earth, what kind of existence would that be for your precious child?  How would they even survive, let alone find meaning or happiness?

There’s a related idea in two dimensions, something like circles of care, rings of moral weight, which Steven Pinker talked about in The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Then the question is how big are your rings?  How many are there?  Who’s in which ones?  Who’s outside your outer ring?  Is anyone?  Pinker wants to convince us that human history is a long story of those circles expanding to include ever more people ever more distant from ourselves, a process aided by the empathy-expanding miracle of story-telling, juiced by improving communication technology, and interrupted by fits of random horror. 

A series of concentric rings in two dimensions sounds… a lot like a topographical map.  So maybe we should imagine what we’d see if we popped those moral rings up into three dimensions!  Abigail Marsh does this towards the end of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.   She puts you at the highest point on your own personal peak, your kin and friends and strangers granted spots nearer or farther from you, which, in the way of simple hills, also means higher or lower.  

The beautiful thing about the three dimensional version is, we can imagine changing the slope.  So, when I think about the Perfect Moral Being who viscerally knows it is right and good to send that train to kill their own child for the sake of ten strangers… their hill isn’t a hill at all, it’s just a perfectly flat piece of land where no amount of closeness to the Perfect Moral Being offers any elevation.

For an extreme contrast, Marsh describes the total narcissist.  They’re atop something like an exposed volcanic core, a spire of rock with room for themselves on top (and maybe their kids, thought they’re probably in constant danger of slipping off),  Everyone else are just ants on the plains far below.  Maybe some hangers-on clinging desperately to the cliff face.

Most of us, though, aren’t extreme.  We’ve got some kind of hill and we probably think our hill is a good hill.  And a lot of the time, I think, we go around thinking most of the people, at least most of the people near the top of our hill with us, are living on a very similar hill in their own minds.

But what happens when you find out they’re not?  Bearing in mind, it’s really hard to actually see another person’s hill.  Most of us probably don’t even have a particularly accurate conscious map of our own hill!  But what if you do start to be able to see enough of yours and enough of theirs to notice things?  Say you’ve given your friend a prime spot on your beloved hill, where you can enjoy together the gorgeous sweeping vistas only a nice steep slope can offer.  Then you go visit them and realize… the gentle contour of your friend’s landscape means no matter how close you are to them, your view will always be partly blocked by someone else’s head!  Worse, you start to feel nervous, not able to see so well who might be coming, not able to tell until it’s too late if they are friend or foe.

Or maybe you’re the one with the home on a hillock and you go visit your friend’s more elevated situation.  You’re enjoying the view… but then you notice some frantic activity on the steep slope below.  You look closer and recognize some people who, back on your hill, have secure spots on the lower slope.  Here, though, they’re working hard to shore up their foundations to cope with the suddenly increased grade.

As Marsh points out, landscapes can be altered.  So, should we be trying to modify our hills?  Maybe we should just protect them from erosion?  Or maybe we need to stand alert, ready to fend off modifications should the Perfect Moral Being come visiting with their righteous shovel?

On my way home from Costco today, I started thinking about how a whole society might be thought of as having a moral topology, too.  Maybe it’s an averaging out of every member’s?  But that would mean, if personal hill types are evenly distributed, then society as a whole would look basically flat.  Which… is not how societies are.  So there must be a weighted average going on, with some people’s hills getting amplified in the final landscape while others get compressed.

And just as I wrote that, I suddenly remembered a thing I wrote a few weeks ago, after watching the Supreme Court nomination hearings, which I have too much of a headache right now to really weave in here, so I’m just going to tag it on because it feels related.

I can’t tell if it’s normal when approaching middle age to suddenly find you’ve acquired x-ray vision for your own society, to find you can see plainly the bones and ligaments, the joints that, no, really, will only bend one way, and your own undeniable position in the structure.  Or are we all, age beside the point, standing here together, agape at the skeleton coming into view while a rampage of fire-breathing monsters burns all the comforting flesh off before our eyes?

I’m pretty sure it’s normal when approaching middle age to take stock of things, to sift through the plot lines of your life looking for the turning points, for good or ill or just different.  What if I’d jumped there?  What if I’d stayed the course here?  What if I’d turned this way instead of that way, whistled a happy tune through that valley and clenched my jaw over that hill instead of the other way around?  Which irritants and disappointments might have been joys and triumphs instead?  Which joys and triumphs might have been a tunnel of thorns?

The great burning, though, also seems to be laying bare the terrain I was dropped on, the contours of the place I drew my first breath, the basic shape of the world I’ve been making my way in ever since.  And frankly, it’s looking like I had fewer options than I thought.  It’s looking like I passed closer to some horrors than I thought.

It would be much more comfortable not to see.