Is it OK to do the wrong thing if doing it can prevent something far worse from happening? Can morality ever be relative? These are the questions researchers who conducted an experiment at the Michigan State University posed to participants.
In the experiment, which was published in Emotion, participants were placed in a virtual scenario in which a train car was bearing down on five innocent people. The potential victims were powerless to escape or do anything else to save themselves, but the participants had the option to reroute the car so that only one helpless victim will perish.
Earlier researchers had asked the same question. In fact, the experiment has been conducted over and over again. This time, however, the researchers elevated the dilemma from a merely philosophical conundrum to a virtual reality where the actions of the participants are played out in real time to the benefit or detriment of realistic digital figures, with, as the study’s authors put it, “the sights, sounds and consequences of (their) actions thrown into stark relief.”
Participants wore head-mounted virtual devices that plunged them into a virtual setting in which they were poised, switch in hand, at the point where the tracks divided. Ahead, they could see the five unsuspecting hikers who, without intervention, faced a violent death. Down the other track, they could see a lone hiker who would face certain doom if the tracks were switched. The level of emotional arousal the participants experienced during the experiment was monitored using fingertip sensors.
Participants were able to see the car approach and had the option of watching as it killed the five characters or of pulling the switch and rerouting the car, sealing the fate of the virtual human on the alternate path. Just as in earlier experiments conducted without the added enhancement of virtual reality equipment, around nine of 10 participants pulled the switch.
“What we found is that the rule of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ can be overcome by considerations of the greater good,” according to Carlos David Navarrete, one of the study’s authors. These results shouldn’t surprise anyone who has spent time observing humans and their behavior. Real-life scenarios are rarely black-and-white, and people are frequently forced to choose between two unsatisfactory courses of action. Often, this is simply a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, but sometimes people must choose between violating their own ethics in order to prevent suffering or standing idly by while someone is harmed. A common example is a police officer who shoots a bank robber to save the lives of innocent hostages.
The study revealed that those who didn’t reroute the car were also apt to be the most emotionally aroused. Navarette likens this to a soldier who freezes up in battle and doesn’t fire his weapon. According to Navarette, moral strictures are important to people, but they can be spurred to violate those rules when doing nothing means that more people will suffer as a result. “I think humans have an aversion to harming others that needs to be overridden by something. By rational thinking, we can sometimes override it…But for some people that increase in anxiety may be so overpowering that they don’t make the…choice for the greater good.”