Visceral reactions precede cognition

By Marc Resnick
Imagine yourself shooting someone with a gun full of blanks.
Imagine yourself hitting a realistic looking plastic baby.
Feel squeamish?  Why?  There is nothing unethical, immoral or illegal about these actions.
As you have guessed by now, this is the next installment of my series about emotion and ethical decision making.  The research I will describe here is really fascinating, especially because of how we feel when we do things like my two examples above.
A classic study found that people are much more willing to pull a switch that redirects a train to kill one person instead of three, but not nearly as willing to throw the one person off the bridge to save the other three.  There is something about physically touching someone when doing harm that makes us averse to doing it, even if the ethics are the same (killing one to save three).  If we considered it unethical to sacrifice one person to save three, we shouldn’t do either one and if we do think it is ethical we should do both.  But we do one and not the other.  Something else is coming into play.  We have enough of an aversive visceral reaction to physically doing the deed that we can’t do it, even if our cognitive/rational/conscious brains tells us it’s the ethical thing to do.
The authors of this research hypothesized that if acts are perfectly harmless, but are physically similar to something unethical, then it would evoke the same physical aversion before cognition has a chance to evaluate it ethically.  We would feel squeamish about doing it anyway.  Our cognition would later tell us it’s OK, and perhaps override the physical aversion since it is so obviously ethical.  But the visceral reaction kicks in first.
Think of the two examples above.  They are the same actions as shooting someone with a real gun or hitting a real baby – two obviously unethical acts.  Throughout human history, there were no blanks (blank spears?) and no plastic babies.  So we evolved to make quicker ethical decisions by using the visceral reaction to predict whether it was ethical or not.  It is better to react fast and be right most of the time than to think the ethics all the way through and be slower.
There are individual differences in how susceptible we are to this physical aversive feeling.  Some people have no problem shooting blanks and hitting dolls.  They are not psychopaths, just cognitive.  Others can’t pull the trigger no matter how convinced they are that the gun is full of blanks.  Their visceral aversion is just too powerful.
Why does this matter?  It is a huge issue in the modern military.  We aren’t engaged in hand to hand combat very much often any more.  Now there is an operator in Colorado who kisses his wife good morning, makes lunch for the kids, and then drives into the office to remotely operate an unmanned drone (UAV) in Afghanistan using a camera and a joystick.  Or think of the commander who starts a battle by signing her name on a piece of paper while sitting in an office at the Pentagon.  By distancing our military personnel from the consequences of the action, we make it easier to do.  History is replete with soldiers who intentionally miss their targets if they can see the faces.  There is a huge concern among political and military ethicists about how modern technology is impacting and will impact military decisions.
When we have one drone army fighting another drone army, it might become very easy to start a war.  And even if it starts this way, there will be expenditures of blood and treasure and fewer resources available to support programs for our own people.
Perhaps the same thing is true when protecting the environment.  The same person who can’t bring themselves to dump a bucket of waste into a river may be able to type the command into a computer and have a trapdoor open a chute that spills some invisible byproduct into some invisible waterway. Just words on the screen.
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