In his 2005 paper “Ethics and Intuitions” (The Journal of Ethics 9: 331-352), which I recently reread, the Australian philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer sets out to “argue that recent research in neuroscience gives us new and powerful reasons for taking a critical stance toward common intuitions” (332). The argument follows an argumentative pattern that I have noticed is increasingly being used by ethicists today, especially those of a broadly utilitarian persuasion: some science or another is said to present us with indubitable facts that clearly show some of our commonly held moral convictions to be wrong, unfounded, or simply not worth holding on to. In Singer’s case, the scientific findings that he builds his case on are the results of measuring test subjects’ brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while confronting them with trolley problems and asking them what the right thing to do in such situations was. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that people are generally more reluctant to get involved in “personal violations” than in “impersonal violations” in order to achieve a certain morally desirable outcome. If all that needs to be done to save five people on a railroad track who are about to be crushed by an oncoming trolley is to throw a switch that redirects the trolley to a different track where it will kill only one person (who would otherwise remain unharmed), most people are prepared to say that one should do it. If, however, the five people can only be saved by pushing a stranger with sufficient mass and weight to stop the trolley on the track, then most test subjects say that this would be wrong, even though the outcome (one life is sacrificed to save five others) is exactly the same. So in the first case they judge like good utilitarians, while in the second they don’t. The question is why. Neuroscience provides the answer: while in the first, “impersonal”, case those areas in the brain that are associated with the emotions show less activity than the areas associated with cognition, the opposite happens in the second, “personal”, case. Also, those few people who thought it was right to push the stranger onto the tracks showed more cognitive brain activity than emotional brain activity. It did, however, take them longer to come to a decision, indicating that they, too, first had to overcome an instinctive negative emotional reaction to the idea of personally harming people.
Now I can see at least three problems with this argument. First, contrary to what Singer suggests, the fact that humans used to live in small groups and that because of the short range of their weapons all killing was necessarily personal does nothing at all to explain why most people in our society are reluctant to regard personally killing someone as morally permissible. Especially not when it comes to strangers. On the contrary, if it is correct that all violence had to be up-close and personal (i.e. “by hitting, pushing, strangling, or using a stick or stone as a club”), and if we can assume, which I think we can, that such violence was not uncommon, especially between those small groups who, after all, had to compete for scarce resources, then believing in the formative power of our evolutionary heritage should lead us to expect people to be rather unconcerned about inflicting mortal harm on strangers. It is hard to see what evolutionary purpose a reluctance to kill strangers could have had 50,000 years ago. So the whole evolutionary explanation of our emotional reaction in the trolley case scenario is nothing but pseudo-scientific hogwash.
Secondly, it may be true that “from the point of the Universe” nobody’s good is of more importance than the good of any other, but that is because from the point of the Universe nobody’s good is of any importance at all. This is the perfectly reasonable conclusion drawn by the psychopath who entirely lacks the instinctive emotional responses that ordinary people have to inflicting harm on others. Singer mentions the psychopath in passing when he describes the reaction of those who judged that pushing the stranger off the bridge was the right thing to do. Even those more rational test subjects, he points out, had to struggle with their emotions and ultimately judged the case “in spite of their emotions”. Anyone would, “unless they were psychopaths” (341). But since Singer argues that those emotional inhibitions, and indeed all non-rational moral intuitions, are misplaced and ought to be ignored or discarded, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ideal moral reasoner is in their mental constitution rather like a psychopath. Singer seems to sense this himself when, in a curious move towards the end of his paper, he, once again citing Sidgwick in his support, warns us from praising “people who are capable of pushing someone off a footbridge in these circumstances” (350) because that might encourage them to “do it on other occasions when it does not save more lives than it costs”. This is clearly a form of the slippery slope argument that is occasionally employed by utilitarians, but I find it difficult to get my head around it. The slippery slope argument may have some plausibility when we consider acts that are just a bit wrong or bad and that may easily pave the way for acts that gradually become worse. You start with one little theft or lie or act of bullying, add another, and soon you have created a habit that runs out of control, especially if you receive some encouragement. But why on earth should we expect that being encouraged to do the right thing (and praise surely is a form of encouragement) should lead people to do bad things (such as morally unjustified killing sprees)? Unless of course there is something already deeply wrong with someone who is capable of doing that supposedly right thing.
Finally, even though Singer briefly addresses the genetic fallacy in his paper, denying that he commits one, his argument seems to me a paradigmatic case of such a fallacy. The fact that the specific way we look at the world and judge what is good and bad, right and wrong, has its origin in our human nature - which has been shaped by our evolutionary history and generally circumstances beyond our control that conceivably might have been different and, if they had, might have left us with a different nature - in no way discredits it. If it did, then we would be left with nothing at all that we could rely on, because the way we reason is just as much rooted in what we have grown to be as the way we feel. There is no view from nowhere, and the universe couldn’t care less whether we live or die, or how many live or die. Singer claims that a normative ethical theory may reject all of our moral intuitions “and still be superior to other normative theories that better matched our moral judgments” (345). I don’t think such a theory would be desirable, or useful, or indeed possible. Ethical theory cannot ignore who and what we are. It must refer back to our nature, which includes our moral nature. For better or worse, there is no escape from our way of looking at the world. Trying to get away from this, to leave our human perspective behind, is not “a way forward” (349), but a fool’s errand. For what leads to moral scepticism is not, as Singer claims (351), the acknowledgment of our grown nature, but on the contrary its denial.