Law scales on table
Law scales on table.
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Dr David Edmonds

'It may be that we have a morality that is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.

'100,000 years ago we didn’t have to worry about people on the other side of the world – we may not even have known about people on the other side of the valley. But although we now know about people in distant lands, we don’t have moral intuitions that reflect that. It’s difficult to bring our intuitions in line with our rational theory.

'A philosopher – at least a certain type of philosopher – believes we should overcome our evolutionary legacy – and behave in ways that don’t come naturally to us.'  

I’m talking to David Edmonds. Best known as a philosopher and documentary-maker for the BBC World Service, David spends 1 day a week in Oxford working as a Senior Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, based on St Ebbe’s Street.

I’ve just asked David how we weigh up moral decisions.

He starts the discussion by drawing a distinction between facts and values – between a description of how we come to have the morality that we have, on the one hand, and what morality we should have on the other.

'We can look at this from a child development perspective: how is it that children come to have the morality that they have? Is it the result of cultural upbringing? Is there an "innate morality?" What role has evolution played in this?

'Then there’s the normative questions around what morality we should have.

It is possible that we have a morality we’ve been raised with, or the morality handed down to us through evolutionary forces, which is entirely inappropriate.

'It is possible that we have a morality we’ve been raised with, or the morality handed down to us through evolutionary forces, which is entirely inappropriate.

'The famous moral philosopher Peter Singer discusses this. Our moral intuitions might have evolved when we lived in small groups of 150. We now live in a globalised world. Then it made no sense to have a sense of responsibility or obligation for lives on the other side of the world. Now it does.

'Peter Singer offers this example. If we see a child drowning in a pond in front of us, everyone would think the right thing to do would be to jump into the pond to save the child. If someone objected: "I couldn’t jump into the pond because I am wearing these beautiful shoes that cost £150,” we would be rightly outraged. But we could do something almost as easy to save lives on the other side of the world, and very few of us are prepared to make the effort. We could send £150 to one of a number of charities or NGOs to save a life. But nobody censors or condemns us for failing to do this.

'There are also game theoretical considerations that play into this. If you lived in a group of 150, you have good (selfish) reason to be altruistic – if that doesn’t sound too contradictory. You will rely on the rest of the group to support you. And if you help someone else, they might help you in return. Reciprocity obviously has less of a role to play with those in need on the other side of the world, people you may never even meet.

We're not good at coping with the scale of the modern world

'Another dimension of this evolutionary legacy is that we're not good at coping with the scale of the modern world. There’s now a considerable body of research looking at how we can persuade people to give more money to charity. It seems we might be more willing to donate to a cause that will benefit 15 people – say trapped miners – who are all identifiable, and whose background stories are fed to us by the media, than to the 50,000 victims of a huge earthquake. Their lives are anonymous to us, and we might find it difficult to process the immensity of the tragedy. This is a flaw in our moral make-up. There’s been related research into friendship and Facebook – the average number of friends is around 150. We can’t cope with a much bigger number than that: if we make new friends, we lose old ones. There’s a limit to how many people we can keep in our heads. These kinds of constraints play into morality.'

It’s been a thorough and fascinating discussion of our human limitations when it comes to morality, and the challenges of marrying an outdated evolutionary moral sense to the vast disparities of poverty and tragedy we indirectly witness in the modern world. Tell me more about your general research interests.
'I’ve recently been very busy finishing Would You Kill the Fat Man? The idea for this book had been there for some time. I first came across the puzzle when I studied PPE at Worcester College. The basic puzzle involves two linked scenarios. In the first, a train is out of control, there are 5 people tied to the track and you, a bystander, can choose to divert the train so that it runs onto a side track with only 1 person tied to it. If you save the 5 lives, you will take the life of the 1 person on the side track. And almost everyone thinks you should divert the train to kill the 1 person and save the 5.

'While I was a graduate there was an article by an American philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thompson. She came up with another scenario. The train is again going down the track, again it’s out of control, and again there are 5 people tied to the track who will die if nothing is done. This time you are on a footbridge, standing by a very large man. Now, you can push the very large man and he will topple over the footbridge, land on the track and his sheer bulk will stop the train from killing the 5 people. Judith Jarvis Thompson’s point was that this seemed like the wrong thing to do. If you ask most people, not just philosophers, they will agree that this is the wrong thing to do. So while the majority would divert the train in the first case, the vast majority would not intervene in the second case. I thought this was a very interesting puzzle, with lots of possible solutions, most of which don’t work.

'So I’d known about this case for some time, when I returned to philosophy and I started up my link with Uehiro. The Uehiro Centre is focused on practical ethics, but it has strong links with neuroscience and psychology. One of the things that interested me about this puzzle was that, since I had first come across it, it had moved from the world of philosophy into other disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience and experimental ethics. Once again there was a distinction between the descriptive and the normative. Philosophers were asking why was it right to turn the train in the first case but not to push the fat man in the second. Now psychologists and neuroscientists became interested in these and related scenarios – investigating why we came to the decisions we came to. Neuroscientists took brain scans as subjects contemplated these thought experiments. They wanted to see what was going on in the brain. Were different bits of the brain engaged when we thought about the different scenarios? At least half of Would You Kill the Fat Man? is not, essentially, about philosophy: it’s about these other aspects of the fat man case.

But perhaps at a more basic level there are profound aspects of morality that societies share

'For example, these runaway train cases have been used to substantiate the claim that human beings have a shared morality. Chomsky famously claimed that all languages have in common a deep structure. Hungarian, English and Swahili may seem entirely distinct but the only way babies can learn to speak these languages and apply the rules to an infinite number of possibilities is that these languages have this shared deep structure. And a related claim has been made for morality. Of course, there are huge differences in the morality of cultures in, say, Britain and Saudi Arabia and Utah. People in these different societies will disagree vehemently about abortion and polygamy and women’s rights. But perhaps at a more basic level there are profound aspects of morality that these societies share. The fat man and other runaway train cases illustrate this – or so the claim goes. It doesn’t matter where you ask the fat man question, people will respond to it in the same way. They will respond the same way regardless of education, sex, nationality, age.

'I happen to think most people get these cases instinctively right. Some philosophers believe that our intuitions are mistaken. We’re just squeamish about pushing the fat man. Strong utilitarians like Peter Singer, Jeremy Bentham, perhaps Mill, think that when push comes to shove (forgive the pun), it is right to shove the fat man.

'I think the utilitarians are wrong, and the vast majority of us are right.

'The puzzle is relevant to all sorts of moral debates: debates about euthanasia and in medical ethics more generally. And in debates about warfare, I think it captures vital distinctions that are built into the Geneva convention. Thus, we believe that it’s sometimes legitimate to have a military target, even if we foresee that, as a result of hitting this target there will be civilian casualties (what is euphemistically called "collateral damage"). We foresee lives will be lost but we don’t intend these lives to be lost, we don’t want these lives to be lost. But we don't think it's legitimate to kill civilians intentionally. That valid moral distinction has a parallel, I and others argue, in the explanation as to why it’s wrong to kill the fat man but right to turn the train in the first case in order to save the 5 lives.

We live in a world that has been partially shaped by philosophers.

'These debates do matter. We live in a world that has been partially shaped by philosophers. Most people don’t realize that, for example, the ideas of the 19th-century utilitarians, Bentham and Mill in particular, have had a big influence on our institutions and public policy. And it’s by no means just the utilitarians. Arguably the most important political theorist of the post-war period was John Rawls. One of Rawls’s claims is that we should give special attention to the least well off. Most people have never heard of John Rawls. But that single thought has had a profound influence on how government is run. When a new policy is being developed it is now routine for politicians and civil servants not just to investigate its aggregate impact across society as a whole, but in particular to look at questions of distribution and how the worst off will be affected.'

Tell me a bit more about yourself as a person, what gives you most job satisfaction and what would you like to think your ultimate legacy will be when, many years from now, you finish you work? 
'I’m torn between my dilettante instincts and my instincts to specialise in and master a topic. Were I to spend all my life on 1 or 2 things, I would find that very unsatisfactory. I’m just interested in too many topics. Then again I would be dissatisfied were I to have purely a dilettante subsistence. The journalism I do for the BBC sates my dilettante appetite – in journalism you have to read up on a topic very quickly and then move on a day or a week or a month later. The wonderful thing about the philosophical side to my life is that I get to concentrate on one or two topics for lengthy periods of time. Not a day, or a week, but years beavering away on the research. So I get job satisfaction through the portfolio nature of my existence – allowing me to be both a dilettante and to have a few tiny pockets of expertise.

'I’m not going to have a legacy in terms of transforming a subject area. But I struggle to make my writing elegant, aesthetically pleasing. I have perfectionist instincts. I agonise over each sentence. I’m desperate for my books to be as good as they can. But I’m painfully aware of my limitations.'

David’s work is funded by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

With Nigel Warburton, David makes Philosophy Bites.