The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachels

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Mental Health and Well-Beings

The Challenge of Cultural Relativism

by James Rachels

How Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes

Rachels begins his article with this story from Herodutus:

“Darius, a king of ancient Persia, was intrigued by the variety of cultures he encountered in his travels. He had found, for example, that the Callatians (a tribe of Indians) customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks, of course, did not do that—the Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and fitting way to dispose of the dead. Darius thought that a sophisticated understanding of the world must include an appreciation of such differences between cultures. One day, to teach this lesson, he summoned some Greeks who happened to be present at his court and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked, as Darius knew they would be, and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callatians, and while the Greeks listened asked them what they would take to burn their dead fathers' bodies. The Callatians were horrified and told Darius not even to mention such a dreadful thing.”

Rachel’s point here is simple: Different cultures have different moral codes.

It’s important to be clear what we mean by this. In just about any society we can find people who reject the prevailing morality. For example, in the United States, it is easy to find people who do not believe in freedom of speech or religion; still, the prevailing moral code in the U.S. stresses individual liberty as a basic moral value. Similarly, it is easy to find people in Islamic society who believe that women and men should be given the same freedoms; still, the prevailing moral code in Islamic society is that men and women are to be judged by very different standards of behavior.

It is easy to multiply examples of differences in moral codes. They are a fascinating to anthropologists, and, of course, a considerable impediment to harmonious living between cultures, and within pluralistic cultures like our own.

Cultural Relativism

Rachels writes:

To many thinkers, this observation—"Different cultures have different moral codes"— has seemed to be the key to understanding morality. The idea of universal truth in ethics, they say, is a myth. The customs of different societies are all that exist. These customs cannot be said to be "correct" or "incorrect," for that implies we have an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. But there is no such independent standard; every standard is culture-bound.

Many moral philosophers attack cultural relativism as an utterly incoherent and stupid doctrine, but to Rachel’s credit, he acknowledges that it is a powerful point of view based on some obviously true statements. His aim is to get clear on the what considerations really support a plausible form of cultural relativism, and what it does and does not imply.

There are a few different arguments for cultural relativism, which come in various forms. Rachel’s looks at the most basic ones.

Before proceeding let’s be clear about what view we are examining. Cultural relativism is not simply the view that different cultures have different moral codes. This is not a controversial claim. Rather, cultural relativism is the view that moral judgments make sense only when they are made with reference to behaviors within the culture to which the standard applies. Put differently: Moral judgments of the behavior of people in one culture in terms of the moral code of another culture make no real sense.

The Cultural Differences Argument

  1. Different cultures have different moral codes.

  2. Therefore, there is no universal moral code.

This is the basic form of the cultural differences argument. This is not quite the way Rachel formulates it, but it is perhaps a little clearer. Rachels claims that the CD argument is invalid, i.e., that the conclusion does not follow from the premise(s). However, the way I have formulated it above, it is valid, at least on one reading of the term “universal”. The problem with the CD argument is that it does not secure the conclusion the main thesis of CR, as elaborated above. In other words, it may be true that there is no code to which every culture subscribes, but this may be simply because some, or even all cultures, haven’t discovered the correct moral code yet.

The easiest way to appreciate this is by analogy with empirical claims. Consider:

  1. Different cultures have different beliefs about the laws of nature.

  2. Therefore there are no universal laws of nature.

This is a seriously uncompelling argument because we tend to assume that the way the world actually works is entirely independent of what we think about the way the world actually works.

So, if we find the CD argument more compelling it is only because we tend to stipulate in advance that the way people ought to be or behave is not independent of what we think about how people ought to be or behave. In other words, we tend to think that morality is a function of the moral code we actually do accept and our moral code is not really capable of error in the way that our empirical beliefs are.

Of course, this doesn’t make the CD argument any better, it just shows that we have a tendency to accept CR prior to any argument.

The Consequences of Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously

Rachels quotes a famous anthropologist named William Graham Sumner summarizes: For Sumner the essence of Cultural Relativism. is that there is no measure of right and wrong other than the standards of one's society: "The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right."

Rachels adumbrates some of the consequences of accepting this view:

1. We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own. ISlavery, Polygamy, Racial and Sexual Discrimination, etc.

2. We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.

3. There would be no such thing as improving a society’s moral codes. For example, a society that rejects a moral code that permits slavery in favor of equal treatment for all has merely changed, not improved.

Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems

In this section Rachel’s makes the very important point that we tend to exaggerate the moral differences between cultures. For example, he says:

“Consider a culture in which people believe it is wrong to eat cows. This may even be a poor culture, in which there is not enough food; still, the cows are not to be touched. Such a society would appear to have values very different from our own. But does it? We have not yet asked why these people will not eat cows. Suppose it is because they believe that after death the souls of humans inhabit the bodies of animals, especially cows, so that a cow may be someone's grandmother. Now do we want to say that their values are different from ours? No; the difference lies elsewhere. The difference is in our belief systems, not in our values. We agree that we shouldn't eat Grandma; we simply disagree about whether the cow is (or could be) Grandma.”

This is a really important point, and we can codify it as follows. In the context of this discussion there are two different ways in which people may differ:

1. We may differ in our moral beliefs.

2. We may differ in our empirical beliefs.

Often, what appears to be a moral disagreement is actually an empirical disagreement. This is not simply a cross-cultural phenomenon, it occurs in moral debates within our culture as well.

For example, people within our culture disagree about the morality of prostitution. Of course, some people will claim that prostitution is just fundamentally wrong and that is the end of the story. However, people who are slightly more articulate than that will be able to give reasons and those reasons will usually be empirical claims about what does or does not happen to those engage in prostitution. If you examine such a debate, you will see that the disagreement centers, not of moral beliefs at all, but rather on empirical ones.

How All Cultures Have Some Values in Common

In this section Rachel’s emphasizes what is often overlooked by cultural relativists, and that is the considerable uniformity in values between cultures that arises from the fact that humans in all societies have the same basic needs. Society’s that did not require that human infants be cared for, or that did not generally prohibit wanton killing, dishonesty, theft of basic necessities and other non cooperative behavior would simply perish.

From this, Rachel correctly concludes that differences in moral codes are often exaggerated. There is in fact a core universal moral code, though there may be peripheral differences.

2.7 Judging a Cultural Practice to Be Undesirable

In this section Rachels shows how it is possible to make objective cross-cultural moral judgments. He uses the rather horrifying example of excision, or female vaginal mutilation:

“In 1996, a 17-year-old girl named Fauziya Kassindja arrived at Newark International Airport and asked for asylum. She had fled her native country of Togo, a small west African nation, to escape what people there call excision.

Excision is a permanently disfiguring procedure that is sometimes called "female circumcision," although it bears little resemblance to the Jewish ritual. More commonly, at least in Western newspapers, it is referred to as "genital mutilation." According to the World Health Organization, the practice is widespread in 26 African nations, and two million girls each year are "excised." “

The question here was whether the girl should be granted asylum on the basis of the desire to escape excision. Ultimately she was granted asylum, largely on the basis of the argument that excision is a morally barbaric practice. (You might note that while this judgment is not really sensible from a CR point of view, this does not mean that a believer in CR would have returned the young woman to her country. A believer in CR might still argue that we can only make decisions based on our own moral code, and that our moral code does not permit us to send her back.)

Is There a Culture-Neutral Standard of Right and Wrong?

The claim that excision is “barbaric” may be regarded as rhetorical, or even racist. But it may also just be shorthand for the claim that it is a harmful and unnecessary practice. Unfortunately, the majority of the inhabitants (both men and women) of most of the societies that practice it disagree.

Some of the argument in favor of excision are:

  • Women who are incapable of sexual pleasure are less likely to be promiscuous; so there will be fewer unwanted pregnancies in unmarried women.

  • Wives for whom sex is only a duty are less likely to be unfaithful to their husbands; and because they will not be thinking about sex, they will be more attentive to the needs of their husbands and children.

  • Husbands enjoy sex more with wives who have been excised.

You don’t have to take these reasons seriously to see an important point, viz., that these are reasons being in given under a shared standard. Rachels identifies this standard as

Whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare (happiness, flourishing, etc.) of the people whose lives are affected by it.

This also returns us to the point made we made above, that whether or not a practice promotes the welfare of the people affected by it is not just a further moral issue, but an empirical one.

The quite plausible background assumption that Rachels makes here is that moral codes exist for the purpose of promoting human welfare. One could disagree with this. For example, a typical disagreement is that moral codes come from God and they exist for the purpose of carrying out God’s will. Of course, people who believe this are certainly not cultural relativists.

Some Concluding Thoughts

What you should take away from this discussion is something like this:

Because human societies are similar in many fundamental respects, all moral codes have a great deal in common. Where there are differences, it is still possible to be critical of a moral code, regardless of its origins, on the basis that it does not achieve what moral codes are supposed to do, namely promote, or maximize human welfare. Whether a moral code has this effect is an empirical question, in principle subject to answer by scientific methods. Sometimes this will be difficult, but often it is not. Excision, for example, is only a widespread practice in highly impoverished countries.

Rachels notes that many people are attracted to CR because it seems to them to counsel a tolerant attitude toward other cultures. This is an important misconception. Tolerance of different ways of achieving personal happiness is a very important part of our moral code, but if you believe in CR, you have no basis for prescribing it to societies that do not already accept it. On the other hand, if you accept Rachels point of view, than you can quite reasonably assert that a totally different society than your own ought to be more tolerant because people who live in that society will enjoy greater welfare as a result.

Many people confuse tolerance with a refusal to make judgments. (Biblical phrases such as “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “He who is without sin, should cast the first stone” may be reasonably accused of this.) It is important to understand that judging a practice to be wrong, and judging that it is necessary to interfere with it are different. One of the very hard lessons of ethics is that you can easily cause even more harm by interfering with the free actions of others than the actions themselves are doing. So, for example, we may judge excision to be a morally depraved practice while choosing to do little about it, simply because external interference in the internal workings of a society may do more harm than good.

What is right about Cultural Relativism?

As a doctrine, cultural relativism has little going for it, but it is still useful in reminding us of some important things. Rachels notes them:

1. “Cultural Relativism warns us, quite rightly, about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard. They are not. Many (but not all) of our practices are merely peculiar to our society, and it is easy to lose sight of that fact. In reminding us of it, the theory does a service.

Funerary practices are one example. The Callatians, according to Herodotus, were "men who eat their fathers"—a shocking idea, to us at least. But eating the flesh of the dead could be understood as a sign of respect. It could be taken as a symbolic act that says: We wish this person's spirit to dwell within us.”

It may in fact be that despite our strong repugnance for such a practice, there is nothing objectively wrong with it at all. (Many people feel the same sense of repugnance for homosexuality or public nudity.)

2. “The second lesson has to do with keeping an open mind. In the course of growing up, each of us has acquired some strong feelings: We have learned to think of some types of conduct as acceptable, and others we have learned to reject. Occasionally, we may find those feelings challenged. We may encounter someone who claims that our feelings are mistaken.”

For example, if you were raised in a strongly religious setting you may be shocked on coming to a public university to realize how many apparently nice people do not believe in a Supreme Being. Of course, as a doctrine, CR doesn’t necessarily encourage tolerance toward such people, but as something that constantly reminds us of the diversity of human beliefs and practices, it can have the effect of causing you to critically examine your own strongly held beliefs.
The Biological Basis of Morality

by E.O. Wilson

Wilson’s article begins as follows:

“CENTURIES of debate on the origin of ethics come down to this: Either ethical principles, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience, or they are human inventions. The distinction is more than an exercise for academic philosophers. The choice between these two understandings makes all the difference in the way we view ourselves as a species. It measures the authority of religion, and it determines the conduct of moral reasoning.”

Wilson’s distinction is a different way of capturing the distinction between cultural relativists and those who reject cultural relativism, usually called “moral realists” or “moral objectivists” Cultural relativists tend toward the belief that ethical principles have a cultural, hence human origin, whereas moral objectivists believe that ethical principles represent a reality independent of human experience.

In this article Wilson captures the difference using different terms:

  • A “transcendentalist” believes that moral guidelines come from outside the human mind.

  • An “empiricist” believes that moral guidelines are entirely aspects of the human mind.

Note: this way of using the term “empiricist” is a little peculiar, but it corresponds to the idea that empiricists traditionally acknowledge only things that are evident to the senses, which transcendental moral principles are not. Importantly, however, Wilson does not mean by “empiricist” someone who thinks morality is an unimportant figment of our imagination. Rather, he means that the empiricist sees morality as having some objective mental and cultural function, and that moral theory should be largely about discovering that function. In his words

The crux of the empiricist view is its emphasis on objective knowledge. Because the success of an ethical code depends on how wisely it interprets moral sentiments, those who frame one should know how the brain works, and how the mind develops. The success of ethics also depends on how accurately a society can predict the consequences of particular actions as opposed to others, especially in cases of moral ambiguity.

Transcendentalism Versus Empiricism

In making the case for empiricism, Wilson briefly identifies the problems of various transcendentalists. For example:

(1) Immanuel Kant believed that "There is in man a power of self-determination, independent of any coercion through sensuous impulses." Our minds are subject to a categorical imperative, Kant said, of what our actions ought to be. The imperative is a good in itself alone, apart from all other considerations, and it can be recognized by this rule: "Act only on that maxim you wish will become a universal law." Most important, and transcendental, ought has no place in nature. Nature, Kant said, is a system of cause and effect, whereas moral choice is a matter of free will, absent cause and effect. In making moral choices, in rising above mere instinct, human beings transcend the realm of nature and enter a realm of freedom that belongs exclusively to them as rational creatures.

(2) G. E. Moore, the founder of modern ethical philosophy, essentially agreed with Kant. In his view, moral reasoning cannot dip into psychology and the social sciences in order to locate ethical principles, because those disciplines yield only a causal picture and fail to illuminate the basis of moral justification. So to reach the normative ought by way of the factual is is to commit a basic error of logic, which Moore called the naturalistic fallacy.

Wilson’s comment on Kant, Moore and other thinkers like them is that it is largely nonsense. The bottom line for Wilson is that there is simply no such thing as uncaused human action. Ethical behavior is no different than any other kind of behavior, and if we are going to understand it, it will have to be in the vocabulary of science.


The standard objection to Wilson’s way of thinking is what we call the is-ought distinction. The idea here is that science can only describe the way nature, and human beings actually are, it does not have the resources to say how humans ought to be.

Wilson, however, is very familiar with this objection, and doesn’t think much of it. He believes that our ethical prescriptions always correspond to rather straightforward descriptions of the human condition. Wilson believes that behavioral prescriptions of different strengths correspond to the strength and universality of the human desire that things should or should not be done. The more universally a behavior is either condoned or condemned, the stronger will be the feeling that we ought our ought not to do it.

For Rawls:

Ought is the translation not of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through an understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature. The empiricist view recognizes that the strength of commitment can wane as a result of new knowledge and experience, with the result that certain rules may be desacralized, old laws rescinded, and formerly prohibited behavior set free. It also recognizes that for the same reason new moral codes may need to be devised, with the potential of being made sacred in time.

The Origin of Moral Instincts

In reading Wilson you could get the idea that he is attacking philosophy generally, but he is really only attacking one very powerful tradition in philosophy, what he calls the “transcendentalist” tradition, but which is also the “rationalist” tradition. Philosophers like Kant and Moore believed that “ought” had to be understood as a property in the world that the rational mind comprehends, rather than an emotional expression of a feeling or sentiment. Philosophers in the empiricist tradition, however, most notably David Hume laid the foundation of Wilson’s few quite a long time ago. According to these philosophers we have a moral sense that that is expressed and completely and fully explained by the feelings of approval and disapproval.

But in the context of evolutionary theory, this view can not be easily dismissed. We now have a very satisfying framework for explaining the evolution of moral sentiments, specifically in the “dynamic relation between cooperation and defection”. This is what has come to be known as “the prisoners dilemma” (PD) which was first explored by another empiricist philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

The PD is essentially about the basis of cooperation. Thomas Hobbes first clearly realized that if human beings were entirely and completely self-interested, then society would be impossible. This is because society demands cooperation, but for any individual person, it is always in their interest to appear to be willing to cooperate, but then defect on any cooperative agreement. Of course, if everyone does this, society falls apart.

One way of responding to this problem is to claim that people are not purely self-interested and are in fact motivated by a Purely Rational will to achieve The Good. This, of course, is to place moral behavior outside the bounds of causal understanding, however. Hobbes, and ultimately Wilson see things differently. Wilson writes:

“Imagine a Paleolithic band of five hunters. One considers breaking away from the others to look for an antelope on his own. If successful, he will gain a large quantity of meat and hide—five times as much as if he stays with the band and they are successful. But he knows from experience that his chances of success are very low, much less than the chances of the band of five working together. In addition, whether successful alone or not, he will suffer animosity from the others for lessening their prospects. By custom the band members remain together and share equitably the animals they kill. So the hunter stays. He also observes good manners in doing so, especially if he is the one who makes the kill. Boastful pride is condemned, because it rips the delicate web of reciprocity.

Now suppose that human propensities to cooperate or defect are heritable: some people are innately more cooperative, others less so. In this respect moral aptitude would simply be like almost all other mental traits studied to date. Among traits with documented heritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy with the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. To the heritability of moral aptitude add the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring. Following that reasoning, in the course of evolutionary history genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole.

Such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave rise to moral sentiments. “

The basic mechanism of the social contract provides the basic framework for explaining, not only moral behavior, but a great deal of what we now consider to be immoral or pathological behavior, as well. For example, if humans evolved to trust only relatively small social groups, then we can expect a great deal of mistrust and outright hostility to those outside it. Hence: xenophobia, racism, war-like impulses.
As you might anticipate, this fact supplies transcendentalists with a basis for doubt: In fact, we have transcended, these impulses by and large. If we are biologically programmed to cooperation with small nomadic tribes how can we possibly have gotten to where we are now, cooperating constantly and instinctively with people we do not even know?

Wilson’s basic answer to this is that it is a good question, but it is just like the question how something as complicated as the human brain could have evolved from a primordial soup. It is not a reason to doubt that it did; it is the basic research project of biological science. So his point is just that ethics itself needs to be subsumed within this project.

Specifically, this research program, as applied to the evolution of moral sentiments must consist in

“* The definition of moral sentiments, first by precise descriptions from experimental psychology and then by analysis of the underlying neural and endocrine responses.

* The genetics of moral sentiments, most easily approached through measurements of the heritability of the psychological and physiological processes of ethical behavior, and eventually, with difficulty, through identification of the prescribing genes.

* The development of moral sentiments as products of the interactions of genes and the environment. Research is most effective when conducted at two levels: the histories of ethical systems as part of the emergence of different cultures, and the cognitive development of individuals living in a variety of cultures. Such investigations are already well along in anthropology and psychology. In the future they will be augmented by contributions from biology.

* The deep history of moral sentiments—why they exist in the first place. Presumably they contributed to survival and reproductive success during the long periods of prehistoric time in which they genetically evolved.”


In the second half of this article Wilson applies his empiricist approach to explaining the origin or religion. Religion and ethics are logically distinct subjects, of course, but they are similar in sharing the impulse to transcendental explanation.

What’s primarily important about this analysis is Wilson’s attempt to explain the appeal of the transcendental impulse itself. According to Wilson, the fact that hierarchically organized social groups conferred greater benefits on everything living within them (i.e., those who chose to go it alone normally suffered worse than even those on the lowest level of the social order) is what explains our preparedness for believing in deities. As Wilson says:

“The human mind evolved to believe in gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to the science of biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result, those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth face disquieting choices.”

Ethics and Intuitions

by Peter Singer

In this article Peter Singer argues that because our intuitions about right and wrong evolved in circumstances very different from the ones we live in now, these intuitions can not always be trusted when we do moral decision making.

We’ve already seen some reason for thinking this. The revulsion or approbation people feel at certain kinds of actions (like eating certain kinds of foods) may have been appropriate (the foods may have been dangerous under certain conditions) and useful at an earlier stage of our evolutionary history, but inappropriate today given greater knowledge about how the world works.
Singer notes that most of us feel a very strong sense of duty to people closest to us, something that David Hume observed as well:
A man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where everything else is equal. Hence arise our common measure of duty, in preferring the one to the other. Our sense of duty always follows the common and natural course of our passions.
Note here that Hume lived in the early 1700’s, a century before Darwin, but he comes very close to a Darwinian understanding. Darwin adds the explanatory element to Hume’s observations, that this sense of duty has been selected for over because humans who gave greater attention to other children than their own offspring were not well represented in future generations.
The point here of course is that it is not immediately obvious that this sense of duty will always reflect the reality of what is right and wrong. For example, if you are given a choice between saving your own child, or ten children you don’t know, you may have the very strong sense that you ought to save your own child. But the intellectual part of you also realizes that it is a far greater harm to allow ten children to die than one. Utilitarians (like Singer) believes that the morally right action are the ones that maximize the amount of happiness in the world, not just happiness for you or people you love.
Singer also discusses a study conducted by clinical psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt read subjects the following story.
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decided that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you thing about that, was it OK for them to make love?
Haidt notes that just about everyone had the very strong feeling that what the siblings did is wrong, and they maintained this conviction despite the fact that most of the standard reasons one would give for this wrongness were not available. Again, our feeling that sex between siblings is wrong stems has strong evolutionary roots, but these conditions are not the ones that prevail today.
The Trolley Problem
Singer’s main point can be understood by reference to thought experiments in ethics. One of the most famous of these is called the “trolley problem”. One form of the problem goes like this.
You see that a loose trolley is headed down a track and will kill five unsuspecting people on the track with whom you are unable to communicate. Fortunately, you are able to control a switch which will divert the trolley to a different track. Unfortunately, there is one person on that track will be killed as a result? What should you do?

A second form of the problem is similar, but with an important difference.

You can not control a switch to divert the trolley, but you are positioned over a footbridge under which the loose trolley will pass. A heavy object thrown in front of the trolley will stop it. Unfortunately, the only object heavy enough to do the job is the person standing next to you. What should you do?

As you can probably guess, most people feel that the right thing to do in the first case is to divert the trolley, but that it is wrong to push the person standing next to you off the bridge. The difficulty here is that you get the same result in either case: one person dead rather than five.

It’s important to see that Singer’s point here is methodological. He’s not trying to solve the trolley problem. He points out that it is common philosophical practice to simply trust our intuitions. In other words, we trust that there must be some morally relevant difference between the two cases since we intuitively judge them differently. We then proceed to concoct elaborate philosophical theories that justify those intuitions.
Singer disagrees with this approach. He believes that, in light of our evolutionary understanding of the origin of such intuitions, we must be prepared to declare that they are simply wrong, and that in fact these cases may indeed be morally equivalent.
If you think about this particular case you’ll realize that the only real difference is whether you kill someone remotely by throwing a switch or by engaging with their bodies in a physical manner. You will probably agree that it would be much easier to kill a person thousands of miles a way with the push of a button, never having to witness the results, then to, say, blow their brains out a close range. But intellectually you probably understand that they are morally equivalent actions.
Beyond evolutionary theory, the real striking new data in moral decision making comes from fMRI technology (functional magnetic resonance imaging.) Using fMRI neurologists can now look at what part of your brain is most active when you are doing different cognitive tasks, and they have observed what goes on when people think about things like the trolley problem.
It turns out that the part of our brain that orchestrates our emotional responses to events (the amygdala) is far more active in the second version than the first. In other words, our stronger emotional reaction to killing someone by actually touching them is simply due to the way evolution has programmed our brain to process this information. It has little to do with the reality of what is occurring.
Greene also predicted that the minority of people who judged that it would be correct to push the person off the bridge would take more time to reach this conclusion because there is an extra cognitive task involved in attempting to resolve contradictory input from different parts of the brain.

Singer’s Conclusions

Singer is careful not to exaggerate the significance of this discussion. In particular, he is not suggesting that our moral intuitions should be completely ignored. All of our decisions, not just moral ones, depend on emotional input. Singer’s point is simply that we can not permit our feelings or intuitions about right and wrong always trump the results of ratiocination. In particular, we need to be aware that “doing the right thing” and “doing what feels right” are two entirely different things.

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