Penn Philosophy Grad Student Studies Morality, Social Norms

Try this thought experiment from the world of philosophy. Imagine a train moving quickly down a track. On its current route, call it Path A, five people stand fixed in place; in another direction, Path B, one immoveable individual waits. A single flip of a switch, at which you happen to be standing, shifts the train’s direction from Path A to B, saving five people but dooming one. Do you flip the switch?

Most people say they would, changing the train’s course.

A slightly altered version shows that same train barreling down that same track into those same five bystanders, but this time there’s a bridge. On that bridge stands a person so large his mass could theoretically stop the vehicle before it hits the people, but he wouldn’t survive the impact. Do you push one person to save five others?

Most people answer no.

Why in one case are participants willing to harm a single person when in the second, they won’t? This question, known as the “Trolley Problem,” aims to explain the different judgment calls, and it’s something Thomas Noah, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate in philosophy, has been researching for five years. Noah, who expects to complete his degree in May and who recently attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, has a unique theory: How we understand the Trolley Problem depends on how we understand moral judgment.  

According to Noah, psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers disagree about how to analyze this problem because they disagree about morality in general and the correct methodology to investigate it.

“What psychologists do is run experiments, giving people these trolley cases to figure out what factors cause them to make different judgments,” he said. “They’re not looking for a principle that would justify these but some sort of cognitive rule.”

Neuroscientists analyze brain scans, Noah said. “They put people in an fMRI or use other techniques to figure out which areas of the brain they think are likely to be causally responsible for those judgments.”

Unlike the first two groups, which turn to experimentation for answers, philosophers reflect on their own views of morality, in particular, what they consider the morally relevant differences between the cases. Then they broadly generalize.

Psychologists and neuroscientists tend to find the cases morally similar; philosophers do not. “My work,” Noah said, “is trying to find some way to resolve the disagreements between philosophers, social scientists and natural scientists to develop a more fruitful understanding of moral judgment.”

Cristina Bicchieri, a professor in Penn’s philosophy department and Noah’s thesis advisor, encouraged her student down this path. “I was always very critical of the traditional views of moral philosophy,” said Bicchieri, the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics. “I pushed him to do more work in cognitive science and neuroscience.”

Noah followed this advice, becoming one of the first cohort of Penn students to earn the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Certificate from the Center for Neuroscience & Society, a unique interdisciplinary program spearheaded by Martha Farah, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences.

Bicchieri’s research focuses on social norms, what constitutes acceptable practices and why, as well as how, to change those norms when necessary. Studying morality was a logical outgrowth, especially for a graduate student like Noah interested in moving his research findings from the classroom to the real world.

He has already done this quite a bit, through a consultancy Bicchieri founded called the Penn Social Norms Group. PennSONG originated from a Penn-UNICEF summer training program Bicchieri started in 2010 to fulfill requests from U.S. and foreign NGOs and governments for training on social norms and how to measure them. Graduate students like Noah now travel around the world offering such teaching, and a new online Penn-UNICEF course, “Social Norms, Social Change,” offered via the Coursera platform gives more people similar opportunities to learn.

“The theory of social norms is basically a theory of motivations. Why do people do what they do, especially when we’re talking about collective actions?” Noah said. “We need to be able to measure the beliefs and expectations that are causing people to act in a certain way.”

He brings up the example of mothers and breastfeeding. Some places around the world believe colostrum, the first mammary gland secretion after a woman gives birth, is unsafe and unhealthy. In fact, the opposite is true; colostrum is full of antibodies, considered optimal nutrition for a newborn. Yet, due to this societal view, mothers in these places instead give their new babies water.

“That can have a lot of bad health consequences, especially if the water’s not clean,” Noah said. “But you need to understand that people have this belief that colostrum is dangerous.”

Bicchieri has also seen this dichotomy around open defecation. Earlier in 2016, Bicchieri sent Noah and Erik Thulin, another Penn doctoral candidate, to Pakistan to lead trainings. The Gates Foundation has now funded PennSONG for a major sanitation project in India. The aim is to understand what problems hamper solutions to open defecation and why, teach individuals about the impact of their behavior on the larger community and foster cooperative resolutions.

Noah’s work on this comes full circle, back to his research and moral psychology, a topic he spent June discussing with colleagues at the NEH Summer Institute called “Moral Psychology and Education: Putting the Humanities to Work” in Grand Rapids, Mich. The bottom line is recognizing what drives action.

“We must have a clear and measurable understanding of ‘moral beliefs’ and ‘moral norms’ if we hope to bring about positive social change on important topics such as violence against women and children,” he said. “That requires a comprehension of moral judgment that combines the best insights of philosophy, social science and natural science.”

None of this may come across as the work of a philosopher, but Noah is insistent his research fits into the broader field.

“It’s not how philosophers have traditionally done philosophy,” but he thinks there is a place for conventional work and for doing philosophy in this style, with these methods. “We should be open-minded about what counts as good philosophy,” he added.  

It’s yet another societal norm he’d like to change. 

Read more about the SCAN certificate program here.

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