Would it be moral to sacrifice one life to save several?
I remember these f-u questions from Philosophy 101 class. I also remember being quite alone in my eagerness to throw grandpa under the out-of-control bus in order to save 30 children from certain death. "But John, what if it was your grandpa?" my teacher asked, trying to trap me.
"Easy. He's dead as a carp."
"Yes. Well. But what if he were alive?"
"Even better. Can we get more busses? He was a miserable asshole. The kids are presumably still innocents."
"But..." The teacher was trying to get me to change my moral choice, to prove that my choice was a matter of preference and not ethics. He shouldn't have chosen to kill a relative, which I found both ethical and quite satisfying.
Now imagine if my teacher had trapped us differently. Would it be okay to sacrifice a man named Tyrone Payton in order to save the New York Philharmonic? How about offing Chip Ellsworth III in order to save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra? Oh, and are you a conservative or liberal?
Just such a study found that the suggestion of race changed people's moral choices. That our preference trumps any consistent set of ethics. Conservatives were more likely to chuck Tyrone than Chip, and liberals were their mirror image, preferring to off Chip over Tyrone.
Says the study's author: "The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it's that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People aren't using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle."
But of course, we already knew that people are swine who retro-justify doing whatever they want. We just hadn't seen it quantified.