The path to moral behavior | Machines Like Us

The brakes of your car fail suddenly and on your path are five people who will certainly be hit and killed. You can steer, but if you do another pedestrian will find himself on your course. Just one. What do you do: do you take action and kill one person or do you do nothing and cause five people to die?

via The path to moral behavior | Machines Like Us.

Researchers in Italy conducted some classic moral dilemmas with test subjects, but instead of just asking the subjects what they might do in these dilemmas, they had them choose in a virtual reality setting.

In fact, with virtual reality the subjects’ behaviour appears to be far more utilitarian than expressed in hypothetical judgements: “in tests with virtual reality people are far more likely to choose to steer and kill only one person,” explains Patil, the first author of the paper. “In classic moral dilemmas, that is, when the subjects are only required to express a judgement on what they would do, they are more likely to state that they would not take any voluntary action that would result in a person being killed.”

Maybe it’s just me, but this seems even less reliable than the interviews.  Too many people today grew up playing video games where they long ago became coarsened to the death of characters in virtual environments.  Trying to draw conclusions from how they react in these environments about how they might react in real life, or even what their philosophical attitude toward these dilemmas might be, seems hopelessly naive.

Part of what the study authors seem to be saying is that this should cause doubt, or at least more doubt, about the results from interviews or survey of people on hypothetical moral dilemmas.  I can’t see how this would cause any additional doubt for those results than what already existed.  It’s already well known that people often react differently from how they think they will react.  The results of those studies are usually more to gauge people’s attitudes, not necessarily how they might react in a moment’s notice.

To me, all this study did was study how people handle moral dilemmas in video games, and I’m not even sure about that.

2 thoughts on “The path to moral behavior | Machines Like Us

  1. Agreed! I am not sure what this is even meant to prove. The reason why we are looking for moral theories is to provide a decision procedure of what to do in varied circumstances, so that we don’t have to rely on our knee-jerk reactions to situations. That persons playing video games more often than not act on the knee-jerk reaction to kill one person rather than five doesn’t tell us anything truly interesting about “the trolley problem” or morality in general. I’m not even surprised by the finding; pose the trolley problem to an undergraduate philosophy class and most will likely say that the right thing to do is switch the tracks to kill one person. But the line of questioning doesn’t end there, we must ask “why switch the tracks?” When they reply that one outcome was better than the other because less overall pain was experienced, then we have some interesting information; after all, with morality we are looking for explanations for why one act is better than another, and we can move on to test the theory against other thought experiments. That’s the problem as I see it with this “research”, we don’t talk the line of inquiry where it needs to go: all we find out is that one reaction is more common than another in a certain situation, not why we act in a certain way.

    Also, and I think I hinted at this above, that many people affirm deontology in theory by saying that they would not switch the tracks, but then, when faced with the scenario in virtual reality, act as a utilitarian only really suggests that when placed in a stressful situation persons make knee-jerk reactions without thinking about their theoretical beliefs. That is not surprising in the slightest. Thanks for sharing this, SAP!


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