EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 10, 2012

Moral choices can be emotional, hard to make

Family Matters Dr. Larry Larsen
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — I am in a school that you know. It is a private high school, and I take a class that has pointless and meaningless stories in it. They are supposed to be teaching us about making hard good and bad decisions. I think the whole thing is a waste of time. Good and bad are usually pretty clear and a story doesn’t teach me anything.

I don’t agree with your opinion, but I do understand where you are coming from.

Adolescence is a time for thinking through the problems we encounter that have to do with what good moral judgment is. It is usually not as easy as the definite choice you suggest. Let me give you an example.

There is a trolley with five people on it heading to certain death. A switch man in a tower can pull a lever and divert the trolley saving the five people but killing one individual stuck on the tracks. What would you do?

Let me change the story a bit. The trolley with the five people is coming down the track. There is a man standing right next to the track. If he is pushed onto it, it will stop the trolley and save the five lives.

Most people say they would pull the lever but never push someone into the path of the trolley even though the result would be essentially the same.

Now let me share a neurobiological experiment. People were given brain scans at the time they made both decisions. When the lever was pulled, the prefrontal cortices lighted up. This is an area involved in logical thinking. When the man was pushed, the limbic area lighted. This part of the brain has to do with affect.

Problem: Some moral decisions are emotional and have to do with being human. Others are mechanical and more remote.

Which is right? That’s why you should continue to go to your class and open your mind and heart.

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. Email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.