Possibly True. Necessarily Entertaining.

Experimental philosophy gets real

with 17 comments

“Ten bucks an hour? Sweet!”

A new study confirms what philosophers have long suspected: ordinary folk disapprove of violently killing innocent bystanders. Published this week in Science, the study is turning heads less for its conclusion and more for its methods. Studying folk intuitions in moral dilemmas is nothing new. But in response to criticism that his laboratory experiments lack ecological validity, Harvard’s Joshua Greene decided to take his research out of the lab and into the field.

“Sure, people will say that pushing a man in front of a speeding trolley is wrong on paper,” says Greene, the study’s lead author. “But what happens when they actually get out there and kill a man? Still wrong? Nobody knew because nobody had tested it.”

With that guiding insight in mind, Greene and colleagues placed their experimental subjects in planned but very real moral dilemmas. So far, they’ve confirmed that the folk disapprove of harvesting the organs from a hospital passerby to save ailing patients; executing an innocent man to appease a violent mob; and shoving a large man from a footbridge to stop a runaway trolley below. Next up, says Greene, is an experiment testing the permissibility of flipping a switch to drop a large man from a footbridge to stop that same runaway trolley. “We’re still waiting on IRB approval for that one,” Greene notes. “But we’re very excited to see how it turns out.”

While the results have been invaluable, research costs have become prohibitive, and Greene’s next trolley experiment might be his last. “At first we followed the lead of the psychology department and required each of our majors to participate in one study,” explains Harvard philosophy chair Sean Kelly. “The problem is, we’re running out of majors.” Trolley problems are especially labor intensive, often requiring five “fresh” volunteers per trial and dozens of trials per study. On the bright side, Kelly notes, this kind of research should do something to reduce the glut of PhD’s being produced each year by philosophy programs.

Written by fauxphilnews

February 25, 2012 at 4:16 pm

17 Responses

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  1. Bwahahahahaha!

    Carsten Fogh Nielsen

    February 26, 2012 at 5:09 am

  2. Josh Greene is in psychology (not philosophy) at Harvard.


    February 26, 2012 at 6:58 am

    • Right, that’s why I had Sean Kelly rather than Greene talking about “our” philosophy majors.


      February 26, 2012 at 7:00 am

  3. Didn’t the first version of this use Georgetown?

    John Protevi

    February 26, 2012 at 8:23 am

    • Sharp eye, John. I realized that Mikhail doesn’t actually carry out laboratory testing of the trolley cases — just an online survey-type thing, I think — and so I changed it to Greene and Harvard. I was hoping not too many people would notice!


      February 26, 2012 at 8:41 am

      • I was pimping it on Facebook to some Georgetown friends. But they were WTF does this have to do with Georgetown? They loved the piece anyway.

        PS are you on FB? Hit me up if you want.

        John Protevi

        February 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm

        • Ah, that’s what I was worried you’d say. Sorry about that! Glad they liked it, though.

          And no, I’m not on Facebook, or else I’d do just that.


          February 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm

  4. I would love to see the posters asking for volunteers for these “experiments”.

    “Seeking large psychology undergraduate whose not afraid of heights and feels confident in humanity’s good nature. Lunch provided.”


    “Can’t help yourself around switches? Don’t really care what they do so long as you get to flip them? Well, do we have an opportunity for you!”

    Benjamin Miller

    February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am

  5. This is fantastic–please keep it up!


    February 26, 2012 at 7:36 pm

  6. Well-meaning people should make a concerted effort to keep Bernard-Henri Lévy away from this blog.

    A. Kuffour

    February 28, 2012 at 12:13 am

  7. […] a kind of Onion for the philosophy world, has just posted pieces looking at the lighter side of X-Phi and Saul Kripke.At the Boston Review, Alex Byrne surveys current views on personal identity and […]

  8. This is pretty epic.


    March 5, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  9. Reblogged this on YBoris.


    March 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm

  10. […] here for a funny […]

  11. Made my day. Please continue!

    Jason Rhee

    February 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm

  12. […] from here and […]

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