Psychology and Philosophy of Good and Evil

Psychology and Philosophy of Good and Evil

Good and evil. Right and wrong. The meaning of these terms has been subject to debate for quite a long time. Plato argued for the Form of the Good as the ultimate object of knowledge that all humans should strive for. However, if I understand correctly, he never quite laid out what exactly Good means. Other philosophers have come to other conclusions about what is Good and Evil based on a religious belief.

This is called Normative Ethics: the study and development of systems of right and wrong - systems of rules, principles, or procedures for figuring out what one should do and no do morally speaking (Jarett, Phil 4 handout). Christian theologians and philosophers, for example, have claimed that God is Good: anything he does or commands is Good and moral, and anything in contradiction to these is Evil and immoral.

However, doubters found some problems with this basis for morality. In the Bible, God commits some acts that are not only in contradiction to his own commands, but are in conflict with our own human intuition of Right and Wrong. Religious beliefs proved to not be a strong basis for objectively determining what is good and evil, and as a result, moral relativism has inevitably sprung up as a reaction to the moral objectivity of religion.

Moral relativists believe that notions of Good and Evil are human constructs that have no real meaning in the Universe. In nature if a lion kills a gazelle, they argue, we do not think of the lion as immoral; (although the gazelle may think so, assuming an understanding of abstract concepts) it is merely nature taking its course. Similarly, if a star erupts and wipes out all life on a nearby planet, this was not an immoral act; it is simply nature.

Relativists claim that among humans, concepts of Good and Evil have been determined by the dominant thinkers and cultures of a certain region. To use a Biblical example, the Israelites of the Old Testament were Good when they conquered the Caananites, who were Evil. The Caananites may have thought differently, but that doesn’t matter; they were defeated. The Israelites conception of Good and Evil continued. Just as history is written by the victors, so too are the notions of Right and Wrong.

In my view, the ideas of moral relativists have some validity; but more on that later. Back in the realm of Normative Ethics, there are two dominant models of determining Right and Wrong that have developed: Deontology (or Kantianism) by Immanuel Kant, and Utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham. These models aim to rationally explain our intuitive sense of morality in a logically consistent manner.

In the Utilitarian model, the Rightness of an act depends solely on its consequences or benefits to society, or social utility (Utility was initially defined as happiness, but later philosophers redefined it as preference) which can be quantified. When determining the morality of an action through this model, one looks at and calculates the utility gained and utility lost through this action; if the utility gained is higher than the utility lost, the action of Good and Right. If the utility lost is greater than the utility gained, the action is Bad and Wrong.

To clarify what this means, I will use the classic thought experiment of the runaway trolley.

Imagine you see a trolley on its track, going full speed ahead. A little ways ahead of the trolley you see five railway workers working on the track; they have their headphones in and do not see the trolley coming. Next to you is a lever; if pulled, it will divert the trolley onto a different track.

However, on this second track is a single railway worker, also with his headphones in and oblivious to the oncoming trolley. Should you do nothing, the trolley will run over the five workers, killing them but sparing the one on the other track; however, if you pull the lever, the trolley will change tracks and kill the single worker but save the other five.

Assuming there is no way around this problem (you can’t alert the workers, you can’t make the trolley stop, etc) and you must choose between these two options, what is it morally Right to do?

According to the Utilitarian model, the Right action would be to pull the lever and allow the trolley to kill the single worker.

The utilitarian would calculate this situation as follows: the utility of the five lives (let’s assign each life’s utility the value of 1) versus the utility of one life. Five “points” of utility would be gained, one would be lost. Simple subtraction: 5-1=4. If you were to allow the one worker to live and the other five to die, the equation would read: 1-5= -4. Four is clearly greater than negative four, and therefore has greater utility.

As pulling the lever brings about the results with greater utility, it is the better option; the Good and Right option. Benefits are maximized and losses are minimized.

Let me give another example to further clarify. Assume you are a government official who is deciding whether to implement Policy A, B, or C on your constituents (for the sake of a clear example we’ll say there are 100 of them). Utility is defined as what brings each person happiness, or at least brings about each person’s preference.

Policy A benefits 40 people, is neutral for 30 people, and would harm 30 people. Policy B benefits 60 people, is neural for 10 people, and harms 30 people. Policy C benefits 40 people, is neutral for 10 people, and harms 50 people.

Here is a table that shows these options:

Benefits Neutral Harms
Policy A 40 30 30
Policy B 60 10 30
Policy C 40 10 50

For each person that benefits, we will assign a score (or utility) of 1. For each that will be neutrally effected, we will assign 0. For each that is harmed, we will assign -1.

Here is the updated table to reflect those scores:

Benefits Utility score Neutral Utility score Harms Utility score
Policy A 40 x 1 40 30 x 0 0 30 x -1 -30
Policy B 60 x 1 60 10 x 0 0 30 x -1 -30
Policy C 40 x 1 40 10 x 0 0 50 x -1 -50

Now let’s do the math:

Policy A:

40 + 0 + (-30) = 10

Policy B:

60 + 0 + (-30) = 30

Policy C:

40 + 0 + (-50) = -10

From this calculation of utility, Policy B is the Good and Right policy to implement. The harm that is inflicted on the 30 people is inconsequential; despite the harm inflicted on them with Policy B, the utility is still greater, and is therefore Right.

Although a complete explanation of Utilitarianism would go much further in depth, I believe the above will serve my purposes. Even the laymen can see that this ethical model examines the final consequences of an action, as measured by cost-benefit analysis of utility, for purposes of determining Right and Wrong actions.

The second dominant Normative ethical model is Deontology, also known as Kantianism. In this model, principles are the emphasis rather than consequences. According to Kant, morality is a “system of rational principles that are valid for all rational beings.”

In saying we are rational beings, Kant means that:

  1. We are autonomous or self governing, and we choose our own ends and goals
  2. We are rational in that we can act on principles of reason, rather than just acting on instinct based on stimulus-response mechanisms (e.g. a squirrel: squirrels can act on desire, memory, instinct, or expectations, but unlike humans it cannot act on abstract ideas like “Would I condone that others act this way?”).

To clarify what Kant means by principles of reason, I give this example taken from Professor Jarrett's ethics handout. Let's say your friend is moving, and you decide to help her out. Several reasons for your decision to help may be because it is fun, because you want to impress a third party, because you will want favors from her in the future, or because you would expect a friend (any friend) to help you in that situation regardless of future expectations.

The first three are not principles; the last one is. Given the last reason, you are helping your friend based on the principle of reason that friends help their friends move.

According to Kant, morality is based on principles. People often act on principles; however, some of these principles are ill-conceived. He claims that as rational beings, we should act on moral principles that are valid for all rational beings. To determine which principles this includes, Kant sees the supreme principle of morality being: Always act such that you could will the principle of your action to be a universal law for all rational beings.

One of the main examples of a principle following this supreme principle is respect for a person's autonomy and personal choice: as an autonomous being, it would be irrational to will that other people do not respect my autonomy or ability to choose.

Let's apply this to the previous trolley thought experiment. Same situation: speeding trolley, five men on one track, one on the other, and you have a lever to divert the trolley to kill the one and save the five if you so desire. Unlike utilitarianism, the Kantian model would say that you should NOT pull the lever to save the five and kill the one. If you did pull the lever, you are not respecting the single worker's autonomy; you are choosing for him that he should die, and using him as a means to an end.

Kantianism would note the distinction between actively killing and simply allowing to die; between these two options, allowing to die is preferable to actively killing. By not pulling the lever, you are operating on the principle that an innocent person, who would otherwise be unaffected, should NOT be sacrificed to save other lives that, although also innocent, will be inevitably affected (in this case killed) by some force. Allowing one person to live and the five to die because of this principle may sound ridiculous to some. In order to determine the morality of a principle, it must be applied universally; so let us apply this principle in a different example.

You are a doctor in a hospital that has five patients in dire need of organ transplants; if they get the transplants, they will lead healthy lives, if they don't they will die. The only suitable donor is another patient who is healthy but came in for his annual check up.

The utilitarian reasoning from the trolley example would say that the check up patient's organs should be taken from him and given to the other five patients. Although he would die, the other five would live; in terms of calculations, the equation is the same: 5+(-1)= 4. However, this seems less acceptable.

If you apply the principle from the trolley example that caused you to not pull the lever, this unacceptability makes sense: an innocent person, who would otherwise be unaffected, should NOT be sacrificed to save other lives that, although also innocent, will be inevitably affected by some force.

A thorough explanation of Deontology would also go much further in depth. However, I believe the above will do. If nothing else, let it be understood that the Deontological (Kantian) ethical model operates by examining the action itself for moral worth, rather than the consequences of the action.

I will give one final example to demonstrate the differences between these two models. Assume you have an old, miserly uncle. He is very wealthy, but has never even given a penny to family members in need, much less charity. Being his only surviving family, you will inherit all of his wealth when he dies; however, you are already financially comfortable so you intend to donate all the money to charities for hungry orphans.

He is taking his sweet time dying though; you thought you would've inherited that old miser's money years ago, yet he's still alive and more miserly than ever. One day you are presented with the opportunity to kill him and get away with it. What do you do?

Utilitarianism would say that you should kill him in order to inherit the wealth and donate it to charity. This model would argue that the utility gained by the hungry orphans is much greater than the utility lost by your uncle. Assuming 1,000 orphans, 1000+(-1)= 999, while 1+(-1000)= -999. Killing the uncle and donating the money is clearly the action with the most utility, and is therefore the moral action.

Kantianism, on the other hand, would say that you should not kill him. The hungry orphans will inevitably be hungry; however, your uncle would not die if it were not for your decision to kill him. The principle that you should not kill one to save others (using him as a means to an end) is in effect here. No matter how great of a benefit would be provided to the orphans, the method of obtaining this consequence violates a rational principle and is therefore immoral, thus making any consequence of this action also immoral.

Now that I have explained the basics of these ethical theories, let's turn to psychology for a moment. Researchers studying the human psyche have determined two basic types of behaviors: altruistic and selfish. Fully altruistic acts are done for the benefit of others, with little or no benefit for the one acting; in fact, sometimes it is done to their detriment. Fully selfish acts, on the other hand, are done purely for the benefit of the one acting, regardless of any benefit or harm the action inflicts on others.

Most actions do not fall under of these extremes, however. There is a spectrum, with altruism on one end and selfishness on the other. Similarly, most people are not purely altruistic nor purely selfish (although these types of people do exist); they are somewhere on the spectrum between the two.

As I mentioned before, moral relativists do not believe in an objective Good and Bad (Evil). Morality does not exist in the universe, it is merely a human construct decided upon by whichever culture is dominant at the time.

I agree that morality does not exist in the universe and that it is a human construct; however, I do not agree with the final claim. Instead, I propose that human morality is subject to the notion of humans as social animals.

Actions that promote community are moral, actions that violate community are immoral. For example, let's say you live in a village with a relatively small tribe. A member of your tribe is extremely hungry, and as you have some spare food, you share it them. This is an intuitively moral act. Why? I propose that feeding this tribe member, an altruistic act, positively strengthened your emotional bond, and in doing so increased the likelihood that this member will help you in time of need. As social animals, this is vitally important for humans. Without the help of other fellow humans, one is not likely to survive in the wilderness of nature. Increasing the likelihood of receiving help from other humans often increases the likelihood of your own survival.

To continue the example, let's say that later on you are walking past a fellow tribe member's tent and spot a well-made knife. You don't think you will get caught, so you steal it. This is intuitively an immoral act. Why? I propose that, should you be caught, this selfish act will weaken your emotional bond with this member and decrease the likelihood that they would help you. If you later find yourself in a time of need, this member, remembering your action, may be unwilling to assist you and thus potentially decreasing your likelihood of survival.

On the other hand, if you are not caught, possessing this knife may allow you to hunt more successfully and therefore increasing your chance of survival. Such is the manner of intuitively immoral actions; they benefit the one committing the action and generally harm the other persons involved. However, intuitively moral actions can benefit others as well as the one committing the action (although the acting person's benefit can range from a direct benefit, such as receiving a reward for this behavior, to an indirect benefit of strengthening community/social bonds).

When contemplating whether to steal the knife, one might weigh the benefits of possessing the knife against the benefit of your current standing the community, or the harms of being caught stealing the knife against the harms of a deteriorated ability to hunt; likely both. In other words, one determines whether they are more likely to successfully survive and reproduce through the benefit of community or the benefit of the knife, in addition to the calculation of being caught.

Sharing food and stealing possessions both have intuitive moral values to them. Sharing is good, stealing is bad. Sharing and stealing have been components of human social life for as long as humans (and arguably our evolutionary ancestors) have existed.

Why is sharing intuitively morally good, and stealing intuitively morally bad? I would argue that our dopaminergic reward system, which rewards us for actions that generally promote survival (food, sex, etc) has evolved in part to promote the idea of community: our ancestors that were “rewarded” for altruistic acts (through feeling good about their action) were more likely to survive because they had a community to support them. Intuitively bad actions like stealing have not died out, however; stealing has no doubt also played a role in determining who survived. If you and the knife's original owner were not in a tribe, but rather the two of you were out on your own, stealing the knife would increase your chances of survival. Even if you got caught, you could guarantee your own survival by threatening, harming or killing the original owner. As intuitively immoral actions like stealing have promoted survival (albeit to a lesser degree), people are still willing to commit these actions. Some even feel a rush when stealing; a good feeling that encourages more of this behavior. It can be assumed that this good feeling is the result of acting in a way that potentially increases likelihood of survival; however, it is dependent on not being caught. Otherwise, the thief will be subject to the general community's intuition that stealing is immoral.

If human morals are the result of intuition, one might ask, how are the Normative ethical models relevant? Neither model perfectly fits intuition, one might say, as demonstrated by the trolley and hospital thought experiments.

I would point out that although neither model generally fits the human intuition, there are those for which one of the models does. There are people who would follow the Utilitarian model and state that in both examples, the utility of the five outweighs the utility of the one and therefore action must be taken to bring this result about, regardless of the details of the situation.

On the other hand, there are people who argue that in both examples the principle that an innocent life which will otherwise be unaffected should not be sacrificed for the others who will inevitably be affected. Both are following their intuitions; so why do they come to different conclusions?

I propose that these people naturally tend to think along the lines of whichever model their intuition followed. Those that say the utility of the five outweighs the utility of the one probably apply this thinking to many aspects of their lives: using a cost-benefit analysis of each option's utility and deciding upon the choice that results in the greatest utility, regardless of what it takes to achieve it.

Meanwhile, those that say the rational principle should not be violated probably pay closer attention to individual actions, disregarding what the final result will be. In addition, I propose that those that naturally tend to think according to the Kantian model are nearer to the Altruistic side of the spectrum; the more they tend to think along that model, the more Altruistic they are. Similarly, those that naturally tend to think along the Utilitarian model are nearer to the Selfish end of the spectrum; the more utilitarian they tend to be, the more Selfish they are.

Before I go on, let me add a couple notes regarding Altruism and Selfishness. Empathy, or lack thereof, is a major determining factor in whether a person is altruistic or selfish. Empathy is the ability to place yourself in the shoes of another, to feel what they feel. Someone who is very empathetic will feel the suffering of another; someone who is not, will not. As the empathetic person feels another's pain, they are much more likely to act in a way that will either alleviate this pain or cause the pain to not be inflicted at all. Someone who lacks empathy does not feel another's pain, and is therefore much more likely to act in a way that could inflict pain on another if it suits the empathy-lacking person's desires. Altruism acts in a way the benefits others, Selfishness acts in a way the benefits the self.

[ To Be Continued Later ]