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Book Launch: “Answers for Aristotle” by Massimo Pigliucci

October 19, 2012

Yesterday, I attended a book launch and wine social in the East Village, where author and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci gave an informal and entertaining discussion about his new book Answers for Aristotle.

The discussion focused around topics pertaining to morality, namely the moral dilemmas we face in our lives and how we are to seek answers to moral dilemmas. A central point of focus was what Massimo referred to as the “trolley problem”. This thought experiment consists of the following. Suppose you see a trolley  approaching a track that is about to kill five workers who are stuck on the track. Next to you, however, is a lever which you can pull to redirect the trolley onto another track. This other track only has one worker attached to it. Thus, pulling the lever will only cause one person to die, whereas doing nothing will cause five persons to die. What do you do? According to Massimo, most people will pull the lever. In this situation, we use a utilitarian judgment, reasoning that pulling the lever saves four lives, and so we pull the lever.

But now consider the following situation. You are standing on top of a bridge and as before there is a trolley approaching a track with five passengers. This time, instead of having a lever, your only option is to push a stranger in front of you over the bridge. The collision of the trolley with this person would stop the trolley in time and save the other five passengers. We are now confronted with which choice to make.

In this situation, the common response changes: most people are reluctant to take action. But as Massimo pointed out, the logic of the two situations is identical. In both cases, the outcome of intervention is to save four lives, albeit in the former case, one just had to pull the lever, and in the latter, one had to violently push someone over a bridge. Nevertheless, people have a hard time justifying why their course of action differs in these two situations, despite their equivalent outcomes.

Massimo addressed this issue by bringing in studies from neuroscience which indicate what goes on in the minds of subjects when confronted with these two situations. The difference in these two situations is illuminating and interesting. In the first scenario of the lever, the area of the mind which is involved in the decision is making is the frontal cortex, an area of the brain involved with logical decision making. However, in the second scenario, it is mostly the amygdala that is involved, a part of the brain governing emotional responses. As one can already intuit, the emotional intensity of having to push someone over a bridge certainly causes us to reconsider what our choice of action ought to be. I find this example fascinating in that it indicates the complexity and subtlety involved in our moral decision making – that our actions which may be difficult to explain on logical terms may nevertheless have an explanation via biological processes.

Massimo went on to discuss many other issues and answer questions from audience members. I lingered around for another hour or so to chime in on the post discussion that ensued with the author, where it became a sort of free for all philosophical discussion – issues ranged from radical skepticism to alternatives to Aristotelian logic.

I found the night to be extremely refreshing, not only in taking a step back and evaluating my character and the moral content of my life, but also in having the opportunity to engage in such a high level of intellectual discussion – a rarity among colleagues, family, and friends.

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