Dean Rohrer

Should We Trust Our Moral Intuitions?

When we condemn the behavior of a politician, celebrity, or friend, we often end up appealing to our moral intuitions. “It just feels wrong!” we say. But where do these intuitive judgments come from? Are they reliable moral guides?

Recently, some unusual research has raised new questions about the role of intuitive responses in ethical reasoning. Joshua Greene, a philosophy graduate now working in psychology who has recently moved from Princeton University to Harvard, studied how people respond to a set of imaginary dilemmas. In one dilemma, you are standing by a railroad track when you notice that a trolley, with no one aboard, is heading for a group of five people. They will all be killed if the trolley continues on its current track.

The only thing you can do to prevent these five deaths is to throw a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill only one person. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that you should divert the trolley onto the side track, thus saving a net four lives.

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