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Killing Babies, Saving the World

Monday, November 16, 2009 - 09:30 PM

Shadows of children Shadows of children (familymwr/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

To get this podcast started, Robert ambushes Jad with a question...a question we've all been dying to ask him since June 10th, 2009, when Amil Abumrad came into the world.

But fear not, we didn't do a whole podcast just to give the new dad a hard time. Robert talks to Josh Greene, the Harvard professor we had on our Morality show. They revisit some ideas from that show in the context of the big, complicated problems of today (think global warming and nuclear war). Josh argues that to deal with those problems, we're going to have to learn how to make better use of that tiny part of our brain that handles abstract thinking. Not a simple proposition, but, despite the odds, Josh has hope.


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Comments [63]


This episode presents a false dichotomy, and then claims we need more people in the world that are brainwashed by a false dichotomy told to them by an authority figure, even if it means they murder their own baby.

Surely you don't have to kill the baby to stop it crying? Even knocking it unconscious is less harm than killing it. It is a common tactic of corrupt 'authorities' to claim that since we are in an exceptional situation, there are only 2 choices, if you don't do x bad thing something even worse will happen. Then out of fear people do the bad thing without bothering to realise that it's a logical fallacy that there are only 2 choices.

Yet Radiolab is claiming that we need more people in the world who blindly accept this logical fallacy of the false dichotomy instead of realising that there can and should be an option c, d, etc. This episode has nothing to do with 'science' and is promoting a LACK of critical thinking.

Jan. 04 2017 06:46 AM
Les Ramabula from South Africa

Amazing as usual!!!!

What I'd like to know though is, what is that amazing jazz bit at the end. Have a band name for me please?

May. 18 2016 05:07 AM
John Culpepper from New York

Sorry for garbled first sentence. Should read:
Smothering the baby is not an example of altruism. If the mother lets the baby live, the soldiers will kill it for sure. But if the mother kills it, she will save herself (and possibly her other children).

[As well as exerting some control over the manner of the baby's death, one might add. I suspect this anecdote of being an urban legend, and if not, I bet there were other family members (siblings, spouse, etc. ) involved.]

Jad is trying to say something about sacrificing the few to save the many, but I'm not sure what. To be altruistic, it seems to me, the act would have to be voluntary, as with firemen, soldiers, and others who are ready to lay down their lives. The example of the mother and the train-pusher seem to fall short in various ways. Since they are not really acting voluntarily, but under external compulsion.

Nov. 18 2013 05:18 PM
John Culpepper from NY

Smothering the baby is not an altruistic. If the mother lets the baby, live it the soldiers will killed it for sure. But if the mother kills it, she will save herself (and possibly her other children).

Therefore smothering the baby is the opposite of an altruistic act. It is a selfish act on the part of the mother. The baby is dead in any case.

This would be true even if there were no other people in the shelter with the mother and baby.

Bad example.

Also the example of pushing the fat man is not a real example of altruism. In real altruism the person would throw themselves onto the track rather than push another person.

Nov. 18 2013 02:24 PM

To all the people who argue that Jad, Robert, and the Harvard professor are being illogical because they don't know whether or not the baby will actually cough-- that's the whole point! There is the uncertainty. That is what makes this question so difficult- not necessarily whether or not you'd sacrifice the life of your baby to save everyone, but the uncertainty of it all; the fact that you can't control the baby. As George Orwell says in 1984, "It was more natural to exist from moment to moment, accepting another ten minutes’ life even with the certainty that there was torture at the end of it." I think most people would do nothing, believing that by doing nothing they are not making a decision, though doing nothing is still doing something.

Jun. 06 2013 04:37 PM
Pawl from SoCal

How can anyone actually know that the child will cough? Or if the child did cough, that it would be heard? And if heard that the entire village would, in fact, be slaughtered? In order to answer the question one has to assume that the questioner can portend the future with absolute accuracy. Int eh reality I inhabit, this is not possible. Thus the question is entirely unanswerable. Any person who accepts the questioner's premise of either/or, and smothers their child to death is guilty of a heinous crime. I would suggest to any who would do so in order to "supposedly" save the entire village, thus taking the questioner's word, is an unthinking fool at best. If, in fact, the questioner is a supreme being who knows that there are only two possible futures—the child dies or the entire village dies—then I STILL would not murder my child, knowing that this supreme being could, as well as seeing the future, affect the future. Let the deaths rest entirely in the questioner/supreme being's hands.

I'm simply AMAZED that this very simple fact of logical deduction was raised neither the Harvard professor nor the show's hosts.

Sep. 08 2012 08:59 PM
David from North Carolina

Just a note on the Cake/Fruit study. There are flaws. The study makes the assumption that cake is a more "big picture" goal than the fruit. In other words, not every individual will view cake as an option that should be avoided. Although the premise is still on target. The idea that working memory loads will influence decision making is a large area of research but weather or not our ability to suppress instinctive urges is impacted by the load is not sufficiently answered with this study. You are on the right track but there are better studies out there.

Feb. 25 2012 01:17 PM
TravelGayle from San Diego

Was it after this podcast where Jad & Krul brought up the 'bitches' comment? I HAVE to chime in. In the early, more flamboyantly gay 90s I hung out once with a group of brilliant gay men in their 20s. Subverting the hetero culture, they called each other "bitch" and used feminized pronouns with each other. I was astonished, with my feminist leanings, to actually laugh at the word use for the first time. It was their way of turning the hetero-male-dominant culture on its head. It was so funny--these guys were absolutely hilarious, and within ten, twenty years, mainstream culture caught on to co-opt "bitch" in its own pop-culture way--not just men calling each other bitch, but anyone calling each other bitch, always as a term of silliness, a sort of pseudo-hostile endearment or goofy scold. I am straight, female. Five years ago I used to call a straight, male friend "bitch," always for fun. LIke: 'can you be my beer bitch' just devolved into, 'thanks, bitch.' So Krul is right, when he says people Jad's age were confused about the term--not everyone is in tune with pop-cultural zeitgeist. I was sad when Jad said he wished he could take the comment back. Nooooo! It was perfectly placed, well done! At the time I heard it (was it during the TV/radio war?) I laughed out loud, as I did when Jad said his mom asked him to 'please pass the salt, bitch.' That's exactly the tension you want to make something funny and mildly subversive. The term is not for everybody to use and enjoy, and that's why it works in certain segments of culture and not others. Most people still don't get "sick" as an adjective for "cool," which is precisely why it works in subculture. Jad just momentarily loaned a bit of slang coolness to the program--which is fantastic in its own right, sure. Don't take it back, Jad. Glad it didn't get edited out!

Feb. 01 2012 03:12 PM

When Greene asks Jad the question, Jad answers with no emotions getting in the way of his thinking. Once Jad is aquainted with the child and emotoinal ties are made, he acts on "sellfish" thinking, but if he stopped and thought about it, either way the child would have died. So why not choose the choice where everyone else lives? Because due to the fact that he is acting on emotions, he is thinking in the moment and not thinking about the outcome.

Sep. 06 2011 07:07 PM
jack smith from LA

Its pleasure to read this all blog.You shared such nice things.Its a good thing for all those people who are fresher like me.I really like to come again.

Jul. 06 2011 07:28 PM

Finally made it into your back catalog and listened to this podcast this morning. While everyone makes some interesting points during the discussion, I feel everyone in the recording is discussing a very narrow piece of the moral dillema. Speaking of our increased ability to handle abstract thought, you're simplifying the debate into a binary decision. Real life isn't like that.

So yes, I would be *much* more likely to let my baby live, and more likely to spend $1000 to save a drowning person in front of me a opposed to a person across the world, but that's only because of the nuance of your scenario:

1. Uncertainty. I *know* I've got a shot at saving the person drowning in front of me because I can directly act right now. Sending money via postal mail doesn't guarantee anyone gets saved at all. I might just be making some scam artist rich. Likewise, killing (or not killing) my baby doesn't guarantee any outcome. Maybe the baby won't cough. Maybe the soldiers won't hear. Maybe the we can overpower the soldiers when they attack.

2. The crowd effect. In your scenario, I made the assumption that I (in my expensive suit) was the only person positioned to save the drowning victim. When I just receive a letter, I assume thousands of other people have received the letter -- let *them* spend $1,000.

3. Cost / Benefit, which is what I believe all these decisions come down to. Human brains evolved just *fine* when it comes to deciding whether the cost is worth the reward. I don't litter because it costs me very little to carry the garbage with me untill I find a garbage can, whereas the consequences of littering would cost a lot more to clean up. The cost of killing my baby is VERY MUCH NOT WORTH the reward of *maybe* the soldiers don't kill us today, but maybe they'll kill us tomorrow instead. The cost of ruining my suit is worth the grattitude of the person I save, but the cost of sending $1000 in the mail is not worth the benefit of... I don't know what -- never seeing my money again, and never hearing back from the organization I sent my money to?

Dec. 06 2010 08:41 AM

This made me think of a Political Behaviors course I took in college. We covered Amoral Familism and the Milgram Experiment...

Sep. 20 2010 02:47 PM

By coincidence I listened to this pod-cast again after reading an article in the July 3rd-9th edition of The Economist titled "Mens sana in corpore sano." The article explains a new theory about the correlation between parasites and pathogens and average intelligence. While this theory is not as abstract and hopeful as the one in the short it may provide even more evidence why rich countries need to help developing ones eradicate disease to ensure a better world. Thought you guys would be interested and thank you for the great show.

Aug. 01 2010 12:10 AM

Even if you don't kill the baby out of saving the one YOU love, thus being selfish, your own selfishness has killed the baby, even if its the soldiers doing it physically.

May. 12 2010 02:39 PM
John T

Playing the dilemma for the spirit in which it was intended: choose between two awful choices (and ignoring that there are other possibilities - quieting the baby under coats or blankets, waiting to see if the baby is about to cough, sending someone to sacrificially distract the troops, etc...) may I just point out that with either choice THE BABY DIES.

Apr. 16 2010 09:32 PM

Given the subject of this podcast it's hard to believe there's no consideration given to the issue of population. In essence we (as a species) are moving towards a global circumstance not far from the hypothetical posed here.

We now see increased conflict over ever-dwindling resources: potable water, arable land, fertile fishing grounds not to mention non-renewable resources such as oil and gas.

And so in a very real sense every new baby born today represents additional pressure on an already strained set of global relationships that allow the "global village" to function.

The common good of our global-village is undermined by every new life our world is assumed to support.

A species with a sincere concern for the common good, and a true capacity for abstract reasoning would have to consider reproductive restraint as a core component of any good-faith effort to restory equity and equanimity to this increasingly catastrophe-prone world.

So - the question might be most humanely be posed: if you believed it could save the world would you sacrifice your unborn baby?

Here's taking it one step further: if you believed it could save the world - would you sacrifice your own life?

Feb. 04 2010 10:50 PM
Tim Sanchez

Did they just describe emotional attachment on one's child and desire not to KILL him/her as "reptile brain" instincts? What the hell is wrong with them? That's not sound ethics, and it's not even scientific, it's called eugenics. It's Hitlerian. I'm a physicist, but when I see this kind of detached, pedantic idealism gone horribly wrong, I'm glad scientists don't rule the world. I'm looking for another science podcast.

Jan. 26 2010 11:49 AM
Mark Ligorski

The most disturbing thing about the "Would you kill the baby?" scenario is the fact of the scenario itself. The very fact that we would accept this as a plausible question to ask points to the much more significant problem of the use of deadly force in an abstract fashion. The patrol coming down the road had no personal reason to kill the people in the cellar, and, yet, they are in a position to do so.

Whenever we lose our shared sense of humanity, it becomes possible to divide the world into "us" and "them," and make believe that what happens to "them" has nothing to do with "us."

To sabotage the experiment altogether (and I agree with another person's argument against answering the question as is), what would have happened if the people had approached the soldiers directly? Appealed to their better natures? Do we presume that all soldiers are mindless killing machines, are always just following orders, that when confronted with imploring mothers and children, that they will just kill wantonly? Maybe they will, but then again, maybe that direct experience of human to human connection will stay that cruelty.

Dec. 06 2009 08:51 PM

I like to eat chocolate and drink coffee when working math and when memorizing figures as both contain caffeine, better for memory than fruit. I wonder if people would rather eat a greasy piece of pizza than fruit, while trying to remember a large number. I don't think I would, unless I was already in a pizza mood.

Also, as a father myself, I'm glad Jad had to reevaluate the baby question from a father's perspective. And I'm pretty sure that any father/mother who could mentally separate him/herself from the situation in the hypothetical would choose to not kill their child in the moment.

Dec. 04 2009 02:04 AM

I agree with Matt Scallon regarding a number of points made in this podcast. First, the notion that abstract thinking is much more common as of this past century, and that we are changed because of it, is utterly bunk. Of course, the ancient practices of philosophy, art and religion have always had and always will have a huge degree of abstraction.

And the examples cited of why today _is_ more abstract, I'm thinking of that strange futuristic-sounding commodity pricing they played in the background, are also irrelevant. What's abstract about buying oil? It's tangible and immediately used by people. It's price has immediate consequence. It's nothing abstract, and it's nothing new. Trade and price fluctuations are themselves as old as stone.

What I make of all this is that it's a load of leftist triumphalism. They tell us that our era is something completely new. Even we, they say, are utterly changed. Tradition and all else from the past must accordingly go out the window _even if it seems wrong_ because to do otherwise would be to listen to your ancient reptilian brain, to be a part of the problem and maybe the one who "kills us all."

When couched in the context of killing our own babies to save the (global) village, I find the suggestion to be quite frightening, however. At least let us suggest that they and other True Believers be the first to go...

Dec. 03 2009 05:40 PM

@ Aaron:

No, I don't think you're a Nazi, and I did not intend to make that implication. But, you do seem to share the same collectivist ideology that has spawned all such movements. I prefer individualism over collectivism, quality over quantity. The value which a society places on human life is measured by how it treats the least of its members. I don't think it is rightfully within our authority to decide who lives/dies; whether we be mothers or soldiers.

I'd beg to differ with you that Nazism isn't rooted in preservationism. Hitler brainwashed an entire nation into believing that their very survival was dependent upon the extermination of others.

Yes indeed, I realize the "Baby" and "Nazi" comparison is not an ethical analog. However, the moral tincture, when distilled, is exactly the same in both cases.

Dec. 03 2009 12:37 PM

2 things happened to me in the past 6 months: I started listening to Radio Lab's podcast, and I had a baby boy. I've been listening out of order and just last night on my way home I listened to Morality and this question really hit me in my gut -- since I couldn't see it as an abstraction, heading home to my own baby, but couldn't help imagining actually being in the situation. In which case my answer was definitely "no" to the hypothetical. When I heard your answer, Jad, knowing (since I was listening out of order) that you'd recently had your own son I wondered EXACTLY this -- and in general, I wondered if PARENTS (especially new parents) would have a different answer to this "moral" question than non-parents. I think this answers that question -- but do you think our brain chemistry changes when we become parents and that's why we change our answer? Or is it just that the question goes from abstract to visceral and if we're being honest with ourselves, actually imagining ourselves IN that situation, our answer is "no," whereas the people who can stand back and deliberate of course pick the logical "yes?"

Dec. 03 2009 11:44 AM

Haven't finished the whole short yet, but I tend to forget my comments if I wait until the end... I am paused at the section where Jad is thinking it over again.

From the perspective of my faith, you should never smother the baby, because killing is wrong period. If God so wishes to kill you the baby and everyone else, it will be done, regardless of whether or not you silence that baby. Imagine killing the infant and then everyone else being killed anyway.

Smothering the baby to "protect" everyone else doesn't sound like a moral decision to me, it is more like a logical solution. But logic and morality are not the same things.

Dec. 03 2009 02:10 AM

My last sentence feels a little unclear...
I'll re-write it.

I'm not a Nazi just because I'd kill the baby. Nazi-ism requires a more elitist philosophy; not preservationist.

Dec. 01 2009 09:21 PM


...Of course Hitler wanted survivors. That Hitler killed people he didn't like doesn't mean anything against my point.

Hitler *wanted* to kill people.

Killing the baby would be out of *necessity*, not out of want. Any decent man would WANT to keep their baby alive. However the situation doesn't allow that.

I would WANT to keep my baby, I hope you realize that. However, in my mind, I can't justify the killing of the whole village by being selfish enough to not kill my baby.

Please note, I realize in real life that the baby wouldn't have 100% chance of coughing, etc. In REAL life, I probably wouldn't kill the baby, but in this scenario (with 100% chance of coughing) I would kill the baby.

One more point I'd like to make:

It's all the leftist liberals who would kill the baby. That's my observation.
Hitler was a fascist. Fascism is quite far to the fight on the political spectrum. In fact, it's more far right than communism is far left. My point? I'm not a Nazi because I'd kill the baby.

Dec. 01 2009 09:18 PM

@Aaron: Hitler did indeed intend his "greater good" to result in a society populated by survivors; that being, only those people he DID like (i.e., people he didn't fear).

In both instances the killing of others is proffered as an acceptable solution to ensure the survival of the many. And, in either instance, death of innocent life is the end result; it matters little what means of fear one uses when attempting to justify such killing.

Failed analysis.

Nov. 30 2009 02:52 PM

Hitler's greater good wasn't having a society (in this particular case, village) that survived. His was that society would be better without the people that HE didn't like.

Failed analogy.

Nov. 30 2009 12:23 AM

Killing people for the greater good? Uhm, isn't that the ideology Hitler espoused to advance his maniacal Third Reich agenda?

@ Matthew C. Scallon 11/19 1:59 pm:
Very well put---you hit the nail square!

Nov. 29 2009 04:22 PM

The discussion of altruistic behavior in relation to the baby and child (not the cake)reminded me of the concepts brought up in the book, The Selfish Gene. Especially Roberts question about how do we deal with abstract issues like global warming. The book proposes the idea of the 'meme' rather than a gene to carry this from generation to generation.

Nov. 29 2009 10:02 AM

If you want to save babies on the other side of the world in a scientifically proven extremely effective manner: support the the organization TamTam. They distribute mosquito nets against malaria, for 7 dollars per net, which reduces child mortality by over 20%!

Nov. 25 2009 01:43 PM

If we're going to look at spatial discounting with respect to relational ethics, abstract thought, and evolution, then we should consider TEMPORAL discounting as well. That's the REAL rub with climate change and most environmental issues. It's even hard to empathize with a currently non-existent person living 200 years from now than it is to empathize with a real live stranger on the other side of the world.

Nov. 25 2009 01:44 AM
shit is wack « ELLECORPHOTO

[...] - (EVEN) Radiolab put up their first podcast in awhile; Killing Babies, Saving the World. It’s a microcast chat with Harvard guy Josh Greene about morality, mortality and big crazy heady worldly decisions—an extension from their kind of shitty Morality episode. Greene uses a study involving numbers, fruit and cake (but no fruitcake) to describe how people occupied with the task of managing, memorizing and computing large numbers have exceedingly greater difficulty managing hedonism. LINK [...]

Nov. 24 2009 01:56 PM
Babies and Steam Engines « The Morning After

[...] What a crazy question right?  I was listening to Radiolab tonight and there topic was “Abstract Thought.”  Have a listen, Killing Babies, Save the World. [...]

Nov. 24 2009 02:53 AM
Eric Mennel

If the trend in IQ is this substantial, is it possible that our founding father were some 75 IQ points lower than us?

Nov. 23 2009 10:19 PM

The "choices" presented ring false to me, especially if you're linking it to, say, a decision to sacrifice your own child for the sake of the village or not litter for the sake of the planetary community. When we defend those closest to us and care about our immediate surroundings, we are acting in a self-interest that, collectively, creates a common interest.

I've never understood, for example, philanthropic endeavors on other continents when there is so much we need to do here.

Nov. 23 2009 09:32 PM

With hope of a constructive, non-hateful argument, I offer this quote from John Adams (?):

"Give me liberty or give me death!"

Granted, you could make a choice that will kill you (such as killing your baby), so you could have liberty AND death; it just won't mean much as you'd be dead. For *my* intents and purposes in this particular case, liberty and death are mutually exclusive.

I offer another quote for the next part of your statement, as seen on countless inspirational posters:

"Life is a series of choices; make the right ones."

My personal definition of liberty it the ability to make a choice about anything you wish (except for a couple of life's certainties: death and taxes).
...Liberty is choice, life is choices, so by the transitive property, life must be liberty.

There's my counter-argument. Of course, our definitions could differ, as well as our beliefs (afterlife?). I don't want to start some huge fight, but I wanted my side to be seen. Feel free to elaborate on yours.

Nov. 23 2009 08:37 PM

Aaron - yes it can. Liberty and death are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, liberty and life are not synonymous. Think about it.

Nov. 23 2009 12:02 AM

Regarding the Flynn effect, what might we have given up in exchange for increased abstract thinking? I would suspect that we are not as perceptive as our forbears; they could read the weather and the environment, where we have to check the current temperature on our smartphones....

Nov. 22 2009 05:05 PM

Individual liberty can't be preserved when everyone is dead.

Nov. 22 2009 02:41 PM

Maybe "the greater good" is a society that would sacrifice itself to preserve the individual liberty of one mother to not have to kill her baby.

Nov. 22 2009 02:15 AM

Regarding the parallel drawn between (a) ruining an expensive suit by jumping into a lake to save a drowning girl and (b) sacrificing $1,000 to save a non-specific child in another part of the world: it seems to me that this is a flawed argument. The first scenario pre-supposes that you are the only person who can save the girl in the lake; if you refuse to save her on the grounds that you don't want to ruin your suit, I imagine most people would consider that morally reprehensible. In the second scenario, the survival of the child on the other side of the world is not dependent on you alone. A more plausible parallel is to argue that richer societies, through a sort of collective decision not to ruin their expensive suits, are declining to save the lives of those less fortunate. Still morally reprehensible, but less so at the level of the individual.

Plausible, but still not necessarily the whole truth.

One final thought. Perhaps our future as a species depends not so much on our growing capacity for abstract thought as on our ability to achieve global consensus on abstract problems? Here is the difference: if you believe that for every problem there is only one, true solution, then it follows that we need to develop our capacity for reasoning to the point that we will all be able to see the truth for ourselves. However, if, as seems more likely, there are often multiple solutions to a problem any one of which could work if it is universally supported, then the challenge in fact becomes to achieve unity in collective undertakings. Jad and Robert, couldn't you do a Radiolab show on the science behind achieving unity?

Nov. 20 2009 08:58 AM
Keith Fail

How do we know that the reason people with the longer number chose the chocolate cake over the fruit salad was because of the struggle between rational and emotional mind? Couldn’t it be more easily explained as a matter of extra stress causing the seven digit rememberers to feel more stressed. Stress is generally recognized as a common contributor to relapse of habit changea.

Perhaps we could test this by giving some subjects a 2 digit number to memorize but also stressing them in another way and seeing if they don’t choose the cake even though their memory is not tied up with holding a long number.

Nov. 20 2009 03:24 AM
Joe Moffett

One example to counter the idea that the Killing babies is wrong = primitive comes from the fact that animals will often kill their own young to survive themselves. That's analytical and "logically" the right way to go about it. If the parents survive, they can have more babies, if the parents die and the babies survive short term, they're going to die because they don't have the skills to survive.

So here our primitive instincts are actually "kill the baby for the greater good" and our evolved instincts are saying "hang on a sec, I don't know the answer to this any more".

Perhaps this stay-of-execution question is actually better for us as a species than simple 1 is less than 100.

After all, history is full of genocidal dictators who have (now) been found to be wrong. By forcing us to find an alternative (making the question appear in the first place) perhaps we can be spurred into finding a means of stopping war altogether, rather than taking the easy route out.

Analytic thinking is going to get us there, but only if spurred by strong motivation. And that motivation comes from tough questions.

Nov. 20 2009 01:49 AM
Joe Moffett

One thing that we're ignoring generally here is that the emotional side of the dilemma has extra weight. Whether this is justified or not, we have added religion to the mix.

Basically, religion (any form) says that what we've got down here is transient, and generally less important than what is to come. (I'm not trying to make any value judgement on this)

With this addition in the mix, the justification that you're saving the whole village by killing your baby isn't simply a one versus many question. It's a possibility of many being martyred and attaining freedom from the here and now to a better beyond, which still is frightening, uncertain and feels less good than the current state of affairs, but is a possibly better versus a I am going to a worse place after this for doing something so dreadful to my own flesh and blood.

Especially in viewing this from a moral point, it becomes horribly cloudy, because it is not guaranteed in our minds (whether justified or not) that we are serving the greater good.

And this is an evolutionary trait that has evolved with us. Our need to believe in something greater than us is touched on obliquely in the monkeys and dopamine episode. We no longer see the future as unconnected to now, and so create real or hypothetic links between now and then using ideas such as fate, luck, belief, etc.

I am rambling - but there is far more to the question of do I kill the few for the greater good than mere mathematics, simply because we have made these psychological associations.

Nov. 20 2009 01:34 AM

So, should I take Justin's comment above as meaning that Republicans are the less evolved form of Homo Sapien as compared to Democrats? If yes, then everything I've ever said about Republicans is pretty much true! Heheh... Seriously, though... I've always thought that Republicans put too much selfish emotion into their policies.

That's my opinion, I'm entitled to it. If I've offended anyone, I'm sorry. I'm not going to have a debate on this forum.

Nov. 19 2009 11:10 PM
Dan Bowen

Why did you not touch on the nearing capability to simply fix our brains to operate properly? Human genetic engineering shouldn't be a taboo subject guys, come on, we need to float real ideas, not hopeful wishes.

Nov. 19 2009 08:41 PM

After listening to this podcast short, my mind really latched on to Josh Greene's interpretation of the Flynn effect - I've only heard the nutritional hypothesis. The idea that we, as an industrialized society, are exercising our minds for better abstract thinking has profound implications from my perspective as a scientist and an educator.

Responding to Daniel B's point above: "No one has real debates – if we do, we do not look at it as an exercise, but as a blood sport – I have had people not talk to me for months because I pushed them to [think] rationally."

To my mind this moral dilemma cuts to the heart of the way issues are debated. In U.S. national politics, often Republicans co-opt an attitude that "common sense" is the best approach to world problems. There is so often a vilification of "intellectual elitism." For example a government-run health care plan is an abstract use of our money. On one hand, you can fight it as a step toward "socialism" and a waste of our hard earned money. But then others have eloquently argued that libertarian Thomas Jefferson might have supported such a reform and that it is the Christian duty of our leaders to engage in such reform (google the online Hastings Institute essay "Stewardship: What Kind of Society Do We Want?"). In other words, the debate becomes framed in such a way to appeal to that kill-my-baby-or-not logic.

I see so much of our heated political discourse to be an expression of the conflict described in this podcast. If you look at how Washington actually works, neither party really stands for either common sense or intellectualism. But appealing to common sense and attacking intellectualism has a really powerful, polarizing effect on voters. I wonder if it is a side-effect of the times we live in?

Our survival as a species WILL depend on intelligent, abstract choices. Whether you are conservative, liberal, or whatever making intelligent, informed choices about problems you cannot see must be a commonly respected value... not a polarizing one. I’d really like to see our elected officials drop all this distracting "hunter-gatherer logic."

Nov. 19 2009 07:27 PM
Lulu Bee

Regarding the experiment: memorizing a number, then being challenged by a snack on the way to revealing the number…what about those who skipped the snack all together? (which I believe would be me because I am concentrating on my number).

Did those factor into the mix?

While I'm at it, this theory could make an argument for stress leading to overeating (making poor decisions). A calm mind means a healthy life.

Nov. 19 2009 06:19 PM
Matthew C. Scallon

Correction: "Metaphysic" was written by Aristotle. I guess someone down the hall must have been popping popcorn, if we believe the premise of this podcast.

Nov. 19 2009 02:05 PM
Matthew C. Scallon

I challenge the basic premise that we in modern society are somehow more likely to engage in abstract thinking. I cite as a few examples to the contrary "Metaphysics" by Plato, "City of God" by Augustine, and "Summa Theologicae" by Thomas Aquinas. Not exactly works of hunter-gatherers, now are they?

Also, killing your baby shows how far off the supporters of baby-killing like those that produce and support public radio are from abstract thinking. Had they thought more non-linearly, they would have found other ways to keep their child quiet: pacifier, nursing, maybe even --depending upon how the old the child is-- telling the baby to cover their own mouth. But, no, in the world of public radio, where any excuse to kill a baby is used to prop up progressive political positions like climate change and non-proliferation, anyone who would save an innocent baby's life is a troglodyte.

It's official. This is Htrae. Good is evil. Peace is war.

Nov. 19 2009 01:59 PM

If our morality is primarily based on environmental probability and brain chemistry why then does morality matter?

Nov. 19 2009 01:30 PM
jim baker

Regarding the experiment: memorizing a number, then being challenged by a snack on the way to revealing the number...I was struck with the reason the people with the large numbers went for the cake was because their brains were working harder and were therefore in need of a quick energy meal, which was better provided by cake than fruit. Just a thought...

Nov. 19 2009 12:33 PM
John McCoy

The problem with these sort of thought experiments is the way they assume perfect knowledge--in this case, you know for a fact that any sound from your baby will result in death for everyone. But the world isn't like that; it's full of uncertainties and best guesses.

When my children discussed the example from the original morality episode about pushing someone onto train tracks to save several others she immediately asked why you would ever think a single person would stop a train. You can counter with "but that's how this question is set up," but really, that is as useful as telling a jury to disregard a piece of evidence. Our morality can't be divorced from our experience any more than it can be from our reason. I believe that a lot of the ambiguity that people feel when asked these questions arises out of the unnatural or clearly false way in which they are posed and not because of any conflict of right and wrong.

Nov. 19 2009 11:40 AM

Michael makes a good point, above.

Nevertheless, the way Robert presented the issue is flawed in another way (touched on by Brianary): the way this problem is posed is that there is a certainty that the baby will die. The only question is who else will die with it. No one? Everyone? If you accept that fact, the choice is regrettable (OK, despicable) but clear. If you're Michael, you figure that facing death is OK, and killing is not, even to save yourself and many others. I don't necessarily agree, but it's an attitude I can appreciate.

Nov. 18 2009 10:37 PM
Michal Tatarynowicz

This might be a stretch, but isn't the 2/7 digit number experiment the same mechanism that supermarkets use when they give prices like $1.99 instead of $2.00, to make people make worse decisions?

Nov. 18 2009 03:21 PM

We all know Right from Wrong. It's wrong to kill your baby - or for that matter, ANY baby. If you kill your baby, you've done wrong. If you do not kill your baby, and the soldiers kill everyone in the village, this is the wrong of the soldiers, not you. It is incumbent upon all of us to do that which is Right.

The other problem with this situation is the uncertainty of events. If you kill your baby, the event has occured. This is compared to something that 'might' happen. If the soldiers capture the village, they might kill everyone, or something else might happen. But even if they do kill the village, you can die knowing you did not kill your own baby.

Nov. 18 2009 10:36 AM

Ohmygosh! Ohmygosh! June 10th is my birthday! No, really! Hmmm... I guess a discussion involving this was had on the "Stochasticity" forums– about the chance of a birthday being on the same day... Awesome, though. That made my day.

...Sorry. No comments on the 'cast. I haven't listened to it yet. I soon will though.

Nov. 18 2009 12:19 AM

What a terrible choice. Not only could I not kill my own baby, but I think I'd try to kill any villager who tried to do it for me!

Nov. 17 2009 04:34 PM

When I saw the announcement about Jad's new baby, my mind went right back to the morality show. LOVE IT!!! Thank you Robert!

Nov. 17 2009 02:54 PM

Jad, I know how terrible it would be to admit that you would kill your son, but your hedging on the issue shows your true answer as clearly as admitting it. Just take heart in the fact that it really would be the right thing to do in that situation.

Nov. 17 2009 02:36 PM

Is it fair to put a specific face on the child, but not on the villagers?

Nov. 17 2009 11:36 AM
Daniel Bernhard

Jad, Bro: Robert and Soren, did put you on the spot. My feeling after listening to the short was that you looked for a dignified way out of a categoric statement you made 3 yrs ago. Not what you were really thinking.
As we evolve our manner of thinking, we will encounter many more dilemmas, in real life, not in "let's see what happens" surveys, because the battle for the fewer resources our planet has, is setting us up for more separation, more ethnocentricism and unbound greed.
One curious point, as we have evolved our cold, calculating side, in general, we live off of sound-bite exchanges, not real debate ... no one has real debates - if we do, we do not look at it as an exercise, but as a blood sport - I have had people not talk to me for months because I pushed them to thing rationally (and, their tiny heads almost exploded).
Jad, now go get Robert on his "sermon" about the unfair ways God acted towards his faithful followers.
Peace and love to all you guys.

Nov. 17 2009 04:52 AM

Jad, I expected you to put some more logic into the mix. What about the chance of the baby actually coughing or not coughing?
What if you had smothered the baby and he/she might never have coughed in the first place? Those are the questions that torture me. For instance, I would sometimes rather know I lost a raffle than not enter at all and wonder if I would have won had I entered.
I guess that falls under the saying: "You can't fail if you don't try in the first place."

Nov. 16 2009 10:41 PM

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