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A Study in Morality

>> Thursday, March 22, 2007

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I usually would post an article that interested me in the Forum section of my blog, called "ZZ's Playroom", which is located on my sidebar. But I found this article particularly interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe it will inspire some healthy conversations and exchanges of opinions and thoughts.

Brain-damaged people give insights into morality

It's wartime, and an enemy doctor is conducting painful and inevitably fatal experiments on children.

You have two kids, ages 8 and 5.
You can surrender one of them within 24 hours
or the doctor will kill both.
What is the right thing to do?

For most people, this scenario based on one in William Styron's novel "Sophie's Choice" is almost an impossible dilemma. But for a group of people with damage in a part of the brain's frontal lobe that helps govern emotions, the decision was far more clear.
They would choose one child for death.

Scientists said on Wednesday a study involving these people has produced unique insights into the brain mechanics of moral decision making and showed that in some key situations emotions play a fundamental role in moral judgments.
The new findings highlighted the role of a region in the front part of the brain below the eyes called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Earlier research had pegged this area -- one of the more recently evolved parts of the human brain -- as playing a role in generating social emotions.
In fact, the people with damage in this region due to stroke or other causes experienced severely diminished empathy, compassion and sense of guilt.
The new findings published in the journal Nature seem to confirm its central role in guiding certain moral judgments like life-or-death scenarios.
The researchers set out to gauge to what degree emotions govern moral judgments by comparing decisions made by people whose emotions already were crippled by this brain damage to decisions made by people with no such damage.

The judgments on what is right and wrong made by these brain-damaged people were similar to the others in some scenarios put before them.
But when asked to make decisions in emotionally wrenching scenarios like the permissibility to kill one's own child to save other people's lives, those with the brain damage were far more likely to accept this utilitarian but harsh solution.

Scientists and philosophers long have debated how people make judgments relating to morality. Are these decisions governed strictly by a calculus of cold, hard facts and logic? Do emotions carry the day?
"This shows a much more subtle, a much more nuanced view, which of course makes the whole problem -- the science of morality -- infinitely more interesting," said Harvard University's Marc Hauser, one of the study's authors.
The study involved six people with damage in this brain region who were presented with 50 scenarios requiring moral judgments, some trivial and some difficult. Their responses were compared to those of 12 others with damage to an unrelated part of the brain and 12 more with no brain damage.

Another wartime scenario involved enemy troops
searching for civilians to kill.
The people in the study were asked
about their willingness
to kill their own infant
whose crying was drawing the attention
of enemy soldiers who would then kill
the parent, the baby and people hiding with them.

Again, the people with this brain damage were far more willing to judge killing the baby as the right moral choice.
The scenarios weighed immediate harm or death to one person against certain future harm or death to many. These brain-damaged people regularly showed a willingness to bring harm to an individual, an act others may find repugnant.
"They are perfectly capable of endorsing the kind of extreme high-conflict dilemma in which indeed you would produce harm to someone because there would be greater good coming to a larger group," said study co-author Antonio Damasio, director of the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute.
"And this is something that human beings in general reject."

The above article raises some interesting questions about how our own sense of morality is affected by how our brain functions or malfunctions.
The two examples given of morality dilemmas, had come from Movies. The first one, mentions "Sophie's Choice", but does not credit the second one. I had recognized it from the last and final episode of "MASH".
Remember that??? Hawkeye had an emotional breakdown when he was trying to get out of the enemy camp. The Army Psychiatrist was working with him to break through his denial about the Chicken Squawking he was hearing. The Chicken squawking was actually the crying of a baby, and how the mother had smothered him/her to death so the baby's crying wouldn't alert the enemy who was close by. I remembered crying during that part of the movie; and I still get a lump when I think about it.

How would you answer
the two dilemmas presented above??

How do you justify your answer?

How do you wrap your mind around it?

And How do you cope with the decision
that you've made???

23 Reflections:

Boo 8:19 AM, March 22, 2007  

I don't think it's a fair question> Or maybe it is fair but it's not possible to get an "accurate" answer. I think people will tend to give the answer that they believe others want to hear. Conversely, there are people that would say, "I would never risk my life to save a drowning man", but when it happens, the adreneline takes over and that same person might be the hero that jumps in and saves the victim. There are also those that are full of bravado and turn into chicken shits when the shit hits the fan. I think no one can give an honest answer until they are experiencing that predicament themselves.

GreeneyeZZ 8:25 AM, March 22, 2007  


Imagine the first scenario as both your children. BooJr and another child of yours.
How do you decide which one you will give up to be killed and which one will be allowed to live?

The second question can also pertain to your son, as an infant.
How do you wrap your mind around that decision and cope with it?


Boo 8:38 AM, March 22, 2007  

Answer 1: I don't give up either child. They'll have to kill us all.

Answer 2: Don't kill child. We probably end up getting caught anyway.

JQP 8:41 AM, March 22, 2007  

The problem with answering the first scenario even hypothetically is the same as answering it for real... the guidance of our emotional and moral reaction. I can not bear to even imagine having to deal with this, so how can I logically give an answer now? I could attempt to make one up, but under the duress of the actual situation my thought process is likely to be different. My 2 children are equally valuable to me on ALL levels..... so I must find some basic, non-emotional reason for choosing one over the other. Can I say take me and spare my children? If not, then I have to choose one and hope that our sacrifice will somehow benefit us all (the one chosen to die will be spared the horror of living with the choice).

The second scenario is relatively easy to answer, I think. To use another movie example -- "Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." The larger group must be protected.

All that being said... the article is about how the brain works more than making moral choices. Somehow, someway - some day - we may have a key to understanding how and why we think and react so that such choices can be better handled.

GreeneyeZZ 11:41 AM, March 22, 2007  

Boo -
You have decided to answer to Dilemma #1, by 'not making a choice', which is *still* making a choice.

And Evil Doctor doesn't *have* to kill *all* of you; 'your' decision to *not choose* will in essence make the evil doctor torture and kill *Both* of your children, rather than just *one* of them.

I'm not saying that your 'choice' is wrong. Not at all. Your decision *appears* to look like you refuse to make such a horrible decision, so that it will *protect* you from the knowledge that you were forced to make a choice on which of your children would die.
I see your decision as a way to reconcile in your mind, the awful reality of such an internal struggle to be faced with such a possibility.
It doesn't make it right or wrong, just a way to cope with the realiy of your decision.

Thoughts on that???

GreeneyeZZ 11:54 AM, March 22, 2007  

Boo, I forgot to respond to your second dilemma.

I realize these are incredibly hard questions, and I don't think they can be answered in a 'right' or 'wrong' way, particularly knowing that the concept of Morality is on a Continuem with lots of variances.

It sounds like, for you, it is ok to 'spare' your own child (temporarily) from killing him yourself, knowing that his cries will get Everyone caught and killed. No 'for the greater good' of the majority?

Jeff 12:16 PM, March 22, 2007  

You are right...tough questions and I am not a parent so maybe even tougher to answer honestly. But here goes. I do nothing. If I have to choose between 1 or 2 children dying these are enormous decisions. I choose to do nothing (provided I truly can do nothing) and leave it to God and hope that intervention occurs before anything comes to fruition. As for the the second scenario again, I choose to do nothing. Although I can tell you my hands might be wrapped tightly around a childs mouth trying to keep it quiet whether or not it is in vain. How do I wrap my mind around it. let go let God. It may scar me for life but it seems I am going to be scarred for life regardless of choices that can be made in these situations.

Boo 12:20 PM, March 22, 2007  

I will NEVER kill my own child EVER.

I realize that by making a decision (or not making one) that that can lead to my child's death too but I would not view it as me killing my child.

Boo 12:23 PM, March 22, 2007  

Here's a question for the panel regarding Scenario #2:

Would you kill SOMEONE ELSE'S child in that same situation? Assume that you and your child(ren) are part of the group that is hiding.

GreeneyeZZ 1:35 PM, March 22, 2007  

Jqp -
You are trying to answer that question from a 'logical' standpoint. Morality does not come from a logical framework. If you were going to be 'logical' about it, one would 'choose' one to die, as that would allow the other to live.

Morality goes much deeper than that. It also encompasses emotions.

Emotions are not Logical; They're just 'There'.

GreeneyeZZ 1:56 PM, March 22, 2007  

'Jeff' -

If you are who I 'think' you are, then...

Welcome! Glad to have you here!

I'm with you on your last comments about being 'scarred' regardless what decision is made.

If it was me making that decision in the first dilemma, I would probably choose the younger to live. This choice for me, is based in knowing that a five year old's morality and awareness of his/her envioronment is not as developed as the 8 year old's. There is somewhat of a protection there for him/her regarding 'Survivor's Guilt'. If allowed, I also would never tell that surviving child of this horrible dilemma anyway, given the hopes that neither child was aware of this possible fate to begin with. (I'd be concerned for future 'survivor's guilt'.)

I also know that I would need a lot of help (therapy) after that, because I know I would have a horrible time coping with the decision that I was forced to let the other one die.

In essence, I would, with the help of God, Let Go and Let God, and do all in my power to not let my child's death be in vain. That his/her life and death had stood for something.

With all that being said....

Wow!! What a Fucking Dilemma!

GreeneyeZZ 2:03 PM, March 22, 2007  

Boo - to answer your own question...

No, I could not do that. That would be up to the parent of that child.

Friday's Child 6:50 PM, March 22, 2007  

ZZ - while I'm sure this article holds fascination for those involved in the field of human behavior,reality is this...some infants have been smothered to death (not always on purpose) during times of war to not give away the location of those hiding. Some children have been killed at the hands of their parents so as to not endure the horrors of what might "happen"...think of Elie Wiesel's "Night". BUT until one is in that situation there is no way they can possibly, ever answer that question. Ever. Because we do not know how we will react. We think we know ourselves but we don't because none of us have ever been in so horrific a situation that we would HAVE to sacrifice a child.

On another note, to even contemplate such a situation, to me, is sinful. I am a mother. I carried my children for nine months inside my body and raised them to adults. To even think of taking their lives under ANY circumstances is wrong and I have to believe that my faith in God would give me an alternative in such a situation.

Anonymous 6:57 PM, March 22, 2007  

I read the article this morning somewhere on the web, but it was about if you had to push a stranger over a bridge to stop an oncoming train in order to save 5 or 6 people, would you do it? And would you do it if it was your child. Then the rest of the article went on to say what you said. About people with brain damage lacking empathy. It's scary.

I would not push anyone or kill anyone. Just let nature take it's course. I believe things happen for a reason. What if you pushed someone in front of a train to stop it and it ran out of steam and stopped anyway?

I could never kill my child or any other child ever. If we all died, so be it. The next life has to be a better place. :)


Brunetta 8:35 PM, March 22, 2007  

I could not fathom the concept of me committing murder, regardless of the situation. And I could not EVER kill my own child. I would not be able to live with myself much less expect the surviving sibling to be able to cope. We would have to all go together.

JQP 9:03 AM, March 23, 2007  

ZZ.... I am no Vulcan... I do not place logic over emotion... truth is, I am a VERY emotionally-driven person, and am driven by passion more than anything else in my life.

My point was that the emotional impact of such a decision would be SO overwhelming that I'm not sure I could make it. Having the benefit of thinking "hypothetically" gives me an opportunity to say "what if"... and try to reason something that I know I could not just choose.

Truth is, if I were actually faced with the decision it would probably kill me. My children are my life.

Billiam 12:28 AM, April 16, 2007  

I must have brain damage because I would have no problem deciding which child to kill or would not hesitate to kill anybody if it were in the best interests of the group as a whole surviving. While in the military, my fire team made a pact to kill each other if we were ever overrun to avoid becoming POW's. Life is worth alot less than people like to believe and everybody, including myself is completely expendable during the right situations.

GreeneyeZZ 7:26 AM, April 16, 2007  


First off, thank you for stopping by and perusing my site! ;)

There's a few things I'm curious about, if you don't mind answering;

1)How long have you been in the military and how has your experience and training shaped how you view those dilemmas?

2)Do you have any children, and if so, how many, and are they living with you?

3)How do you cope with the decision that you've made??

I was intriqued by your response.


Billiam 2:20 PM, April 16, 2007  

Hey Greeneyezz! I hope you are doing well :) I don't mind answering those questions at all. I am no longer in the military, but served 3 years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and served a tour in Iraq. I believe that my military training has desensitized me to violence and death and has also taught me how to make difficult decisions quickly without letting my emotions cloud my judgement.

I don't have any children yet, but I am expecting my first child in about 7 months and it will be awesome!

I'm not sure how I would cope with that decision if I had to make it. I already see a team of shrinks on a regular basis for combat PTSD issues I am dealing with like survivors guilt and hypervigilence. Although I would not hesitate to kill somebody to save another, I'm sure I would pay for my decision psycologically in the future.

GreeneyeZZ 4:44 PM, April 21, 2007  


"Desensitize" is a good word. I'm sure you have been desensitized towards violence and death, considering your training and experiences in Iraq.

Though I personally do not agree with this war, I most certainly respect what you do for our country, and helping to keep it safe and free.
For that reason,
Thank you! :)

I want to also say Contratulations on the future Son/Daughter that you will have in 7 months. You must be very excited!
I asked if you had children due to your position on your ease of being able to choose which child to have killed.
I had a hunch that you did not have children yet, or if you did, they were not living with you, or you had very little contact with. That was based on on your ability to Make difficult decisions quickly without letting your emotions cloud your judgement.
Something tells me your postion (and struggle) will change, once you become a Dad.

Someone once said:

"The decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walk around outside your body." ~unknown

I think it will be much harder for you to make that awful decision, regardless of your training.
As well as it should be! ;)

I also wanted to say, I wish you well with the PTSD issues, which is soooo very common for what you've experienced. I don't think our government does enough to help Veterans and those in the Military, when this is often a by-product of protecting our country.
I wish you the best with this.


Billiam 1:24 AM, April 22, 2007  


Thank you for visiting my blog :) I have had a very pleasant experience with the Veterans Administration hospitals. They have top notch doctors and cutting edge treatments at some facilities for PTSD. They have helped me greatly. They were also very speedy about processing and approving my claim but that may only have been because my stressors were well documented.

GreeneyeZZ 8:28 AM, April 22, 2007  


I'm glad you've had a very pleasant experience. I've heard mixed reviews from people, but I'm wondering in the locality has anything to do with it.
While on your site, I noticed your shoutbox. I used to have one on here, but they eventually wanted to charge for it, so I took it off.
I follwed yours to the main website, and was able to register my own. Unbeknownst to you I'm sure, but I got the idea again from your site!

Billiam 12:15 AM, May 10, 2007  

I'm not sure if the locality has much to do with it anymore. Because of the increase in the number of veterans with service connected issues returning from combat tours overseas, Claims are no longer being reviewed at the usual regional VA offices. I live in Michigan and my case was recently reviewed in the New York regional office. The first time I submitted paperwork, I was reviewed in Detroit.

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