Friday, November 30, 2007

An Easy Way Out?

The flap over the "Created Equal" series of columns on Slate (which ended with something of an apology from the author), for some reason, reminded me of an earlier stand alone Human Nature column. Back in March, William Saletan wrote "Mind Makes Right," about a study published in the journal Nature. I found this study interesting enough to mention it on Nobody In Particular, and I suppose that it's lingered in the back of my mind ever since. But thinking about the challenges of egalitarianism in the face of arguments over inequality, it came back to the forefront.

Scenario 12: Lifeboat 2
Mean emotion rating: 5.1
You are on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat you’re in is sitting dangerously low in the water—a few inches lower and it will sink.
The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. If nothing is done it will sink before the rescue boats arrive and everyone on board will die. However, there is an injured person who will not survive in any case. If you throw that person overboard the boat will stay afloat and the remaining passengers will be saved.
Would you throw this person overboard in order to save the lives of the remaining passengers?
"Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements" - Nature
What makes this scenario interesting is that fact that the injured passenger is going to die, no matter what you do. If you push them overboard, they drown. If you leave them in the boat, it sinks, and everyone, including the injured passenger, drowns. And depending on how you read the scenario, even if the rescue boats were to show up right at that moment, the injured passenger is going to die from their injuries.

According to the Nature study, certain damage to the prefrontal cortex increases the chance that a person would state a preference for pushing the injured passenger overboard, saving themselves certainly, but also saving each and every other person in the lifeboat with them. Nature's researchers concluded that absent this damage, people are more likely to chose a "moral" solution (in this case, everyone drowns) to a "utilitarian" solution (the fatally injured passenger drowns, but everyone else survives). Put another way, "normal" people are commonly unwilling to make a determination that the fatally injured passenger's life is worth little enough that it is appropriate to sacrifice them to save everyone else, even if the alternative is effectively mass suicide.
"What really interests me [... are] the things at which we as a society will grasp in order to justify pushing people off the boat."
Dawn Coyote
Whatever the reason, Malthusian scenarios and people's sense of justice do not mix, and conflicts between the two often conspire to make people cowards of a sort. People either flee difficult decisions or look for ways to make them easier. The injured passenger on Nature's sinking lifeboat is guilty of nothing outside of bad luck, and it feels unfair to push them overboard, even when everyone else's life depends on it. And so people have difficulty in persuading themselves to do so.

Perhaps this is the root of the recurring attempts by this tribe or that nation to establish an "objective" hierarchy of relative human worth, sometimes based on laughably shallow and/or imprecise criteria. It may be a dirty business, but if it's based on "facts," then it can be argued that there is no self-serving bias involved. The results may violate one's sense of propriety, the argument goes, but they represent the "truth," and perhaps even reflect the order of the universe, or, at an extreme, the will of the divine. People may not put themselves in the very first spot, to avoid the appearance of outright bias, but you can be sure that hardcore hierarchicists are going to ensure that they make the cutoff when the hard choices have to be made. In this degree, bigotry allows for scarcity and justice to go hand-in-hand, by placing the difficult decisions in the hands of facts.

Maybe the reason why we grasp at reasons as a society, is that it frees us from having to make these judgment calls as individuals.
"No, we are not created equal. But we are endowed by our Creator with the ideal of equality, and the intelligence to finish the job."
William Saletan "human nature: Created Equal - All God's Children"

It's understood that the ideal of equality doesn't mean that we all die together. We would hope that it aspires to a state where people don't make decisions based on narrow parochial and emotional interests; acting to advance preserve themselves, people they identify with, and people they like at the expense of others (whom they conveniently label as undesirables). That level of enlightenment is a laudable goal, but given history up to this point, it's clear that we need at least one backup plan.

I would postulate that short of universal enlightenment, the greatest tool that equality has at its disposal is plenty. While there are assholes who just can't stand to see other people happy, most of us, when our own bellies are full, have no issues with other people also eating their fill. Debates over whether it's the gifted students or the developmentally disabled who should get the lion's share of resources fade when neither group has to go begging. True, there are people for whom everything just isn't enough. There's always another multi-millionaire who feels that they need to steal what others have to feel complete. Quietly lock them away, and make sure they get their medications, while the rest of us go on with taking care of things. So rather than be allow ourselves to be locked into a hyper-competitive Malthusian disaster scenario, perhaps we're better off working to see if we can make the pie large enough to go around.

Just as useful, if a somewhat more difficult tool to cultivate, is a simple acceptance that sometimes, life isn't fair. Justice may be the bread and butter of legal scholars and activists, but its not something taught in physics and biology classes. Inequity aversion may be hardwired into our brains, but inequity avoidance isn't always possible. Sometimes, there really is no choice except for someone to go overboard, and there's no just way to decide who it is. Not dealing with it doesn't change that, so the best thing to do is to be as prepared as possible, so that such dire straits are few and far between.

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