You chose not to flip off the person who purposefully cut in front of you in traffic, left a sizable tip for the barista and held the door for a family coming in after you. You might fancy yourself a do-gooder, maybe not as good as Mother Teresa, but you still try to do the right thing. Most humans do; in fact, we are programmed and socially enforced to do so. From the more apparent standards of laws to the less explicit evolutionary value, humans have an innate propensity for cooperation and altruism.
In philosopher Philippa Foot’s infamous “Trolley Problem,” you would see an oncoming trolley careening down the tracks toward five unsuspecting workers. You are standing next to a lever that would change the trolley course to another set of tracks; however, one lone worker would be hit. Would you sacrifice the one to save five? What if the lone worker were your child or sibling, or if you had to push the one worker on the tracks — would you still sacrifice one to save five workers?
Aside from the potential shift in the space-time continuum, most utilitarians would call shotgun on the DeLorean and travel with Marty and Doc through time to kill a younger Genghis Khan or Mussolini. Utilitarianism dictates that actions are morally right if they benefit a majority. In contrast, German philosopher Immanuel Kant would say, don’t touch that lever! It would be immoral to kill the one worker to save the five because killing itself is immoral. Kant was most associated with deontology which commands that certain acts are morally obligatory and we have a duty to comply regardless of the outcome for human welfare. A textbook, or in this case comic book, example of this would be Batman’s reluctance to kill the Joker, despite the Joker’s malevolence and disregard for human life.
Our emotional and mental state can also change how we approach the Trolley Problem. When we are under stress or experiencing anxiety, we tend to be more deontological in our moral decision-making, even if the cause of our stress is unrelated. Meaning, you are more likely not to pull the lever if you are anxious about a job interview. Experiencing empathy, too, makes us more reluctant to sacrifice one person to save many. Conversely, French researchers studying the effects of alcohol on moral decision-making reported that the drunker the individual, the more likely they were to sacrifice one to save five when asked about the Trolley Problem. Likewise, research in 2008 showed the power of a foul smell on morality. After spraying fart aroma into a room where participants were, the participants tended to answer the Trolley Problem affirming utilitarianism. In other words, you are one stinky sock away from tripping grandma in the zombie apocalypse to save yourself. So, if you are like Bonnie Tyler and are holding out for a hero, I would advise against it; particularly, if you are the lone rail worker.
As anyone who has dealt with humans for any length of time knows, there seems to be a gap in what we say and what we do. American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory regarding stages of gaining moral reasoning echoed this notion in reference to younglings learning about morality versus practicing it. We tend to recognize the moral high ground but do not always behave accordingly. Yet, if we think of ourselves as morally fibrous, we are more likely to engage in good behavior out of obligation to our self-concept. In the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, there is a system that divides characters into nine moral alignments: unions of good or evil and law or chaos. My chosen character is usually chaotic good, inherently virtuous and directed by my conscience but with little need or regard for the law. I want to think of myself as that person, that the character I create is a reflection of myself, or at the very least who I strive to be. Because I think of myself as chaotic good, I will likely be willing to break the rules to achieve a higher justice. This is not always the case, but I do my best.
Although it seems irrational, humans do possess an instinctive capacity for cooperation and altruism. We engage in reciprocity, where our positive actions are met with more positive actions from others. However, allow me to relevantly nerd out on more tabletop gaming strategies for a moment. American Mathematician Anatol Rapport proposed the tit-for-tat theory in the 1980s that expressed, in crude simplification, that we are likely to cooperate but will also reciprocate negative actions equivalently. Science has studied tit-for-tat and reciprocity as a biological and evolutionary function, but it is not enigmatic to parallel its utility in daily life. Regardless of what, if any, religion to which you subscribe, the master of morality, Jesus himself, put forth a renowned ideal known as the “golden rule.” It demands that we should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It seems simple but is often forgotten. So, I see you, and I raise you to treat the next stranger you encounter with genuine compassion and affability. Feel free to email me and tell me about it. You are one kind gesture away from a glorious day.