Given the Choice, Liberals Would Rather "Kill Whitey"

By Jennifer Welsh | September 20, 2010 9:14 am

kill whiteyRecent work by David Pizarro at Cornell is shedding light the role that race and ethics play in politics, by asking people to sacrifice the lives of either Tyrone Payton or Chip Ellsworth III.

OK, they didn’t really have to sacrifice anyone, but each participant in the study was faced with a variation of the classical ethical dilemma called the “trolley problem.” The trolley problem asks the question: Would you push someone on to the tracks (and kill them) to stop a trolley holding 100 people from crashing (and killing them all)?

The paper (pdf) describes the twist that Pizarro and colleagues put on the trolley question when they asked it to California undergraduates:

Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra.

While the study didn’t specifically mention each person’s race, the researchers reasoned that “Tyrone” would be stereotyped as black, while “Chip” would be stereotyped as white. On the saving end, they assumed that the Philharmonic would be thought of as white, while the Harlem Jazz Orchestra would be assumed black.

When faced with this choice, each individual in the study group showed different reactions based on their political leanings–the liberals were more likely to sacrifice “Chip” to save the Orchestra, while conservatives were more likely to sacrifice “Tyrone” to save the Philharmonic. When describing the findings in a recent talk Pizarro explained his interpretation of the findings:

If you’re wondering whether this is just because conservatives are racist—well, it may well be that conservatives are more racist. But it appears in these studies that the effect is driven [primarily] by liberals saying that they’re more likely to agree with pushing the white man and [more likely to] disagree with pushing the black man.

Pizzaro told David Dobbs of Wired Science that he thinks these results mean we actually have two different sets of morals, one relating to the action itself, and the other focused on its consequences:

“The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”

So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act—and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.

Related Content:
Gene Expression: Experiments in Ethics
Gene Expression: Means vs. Ends & morality
80beats: Magnetic Zaps to the Brain Can Alter People’s Moral Judgments
DISCOVER: Whose Life Would You Save?
DISCOVER: Is Morality Innate and Universal?

Image: Flickr/ Katie Tegtmeyer

MORE ABOUT: & decisions, ethics, racism
  • Matt

    “Chip” sounds like a preppy twit. I might sacrifice him for a trolley car full of westminster dog show best of breed winners.

  • Robert Hiles

    If I was given the choice, I would sacrifice myself. If I would be in that position, I wouldn’t sacrifice anyone who didn’t have a choice in the matter.

  • Georg

    People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle

    Douglas Adams depicts a software entrepeneur making big money with
    a software named “REASON” in Dirk Gentleys Holistic Detective Agency””.
    The software produces exactly what one needs: reasons for a decision
    already made. REASON never made it on everybodys PCs, because
    Pentagon bought the software including paper in waste bins.
    Georg

  • Bill

    I’m curious what the outcome would be based purely on artistic merit………

  • Katharine

    Screw the orchestras. Tyrone and Chip could be chemists.

  • anonymouse

    Is this what we are calling science these days? The way I read the outcome of the study: Liberals prefer Jazz and Conservatives prefer Classical.

  • http://www.CactusWrangler.com Beth Terry

    I’m confused by the comment explaining the event. Did you edit something out? The article talked about LIBERALS doing something, then there’s a non-sequitur that mentions conservatives.
    Bias? Or editing problem? Just curious how Liberals choosing to kill the white guy makes conservatives more racist???

    Quote ~~
    “the *LIBERALS* were more likely to sacrifice “Chip” to save the Orchestra than they were to sacrifice “Tyrone” to save the Philharmonic. When describing the findings in a recent talk Pizarro explained his interpretation of the findings:

    If you’re wondering whether this is just because *CONSERVATIVES are racist*—well, it may well be that conservatives are more racist. But it appears in these studies that the effect is driven [primarily] by liberals saying that they’re more likely to agree with pushing the white man and [more likely to] disagree with pushing the black man.

  • Chuckles

    This is an exercise in futility……an unreal situation that presents only one of two scenarios in which you would likely not have time to think, only react.

    The correct answer is provided by Robert above – one would sacrifice themselves first as occurs in real life or combat quite often. That is the highest and best principle – to sacrifice one’s self for the life of an0ther.

    Another stupid study funded by who – the taxpayers more than likely.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    You’re right, Beth—there was an editing error. I changed the lead-in to the quote to clarify how conservatives figured into the study.

    Thanks for the correction.

  • krissy

    I am so sick of these unethical studies. That and electric shocks and torture. Why cant science do something useful?

  • surge

    I would first have to verify that killing one person will indeed save the purported number, because it might have been one of those lies politicians and corporations use to get rid of a competition while staying clean themselves. Next, I wil have to find out why it came to having to kill a seemingly unrealted and innocent person to save someone else and how all those people got into trouble in the first place.
    Once all that has been figured out, I will only support any actions to be taken to prevent such a disasterous situation from arising in the future. I guess I am good at keeping a contract job for a lot longer than the employer initially intended! But then I would be saving any future spending on hitmen.
    I agree with all that opine that this kind of study is a waste of all resources, actually harming scientific thinking than contributing to it. Any conclusions have no useful value whatsoever.

  • Keith B

    From the article, it seems that the experiment is missing two key controls: would people throw Chip to save the Philharmonic, and would people throw Tyrone to save the Jazz Orchestra? Without these, it seems a comparison of the two conditions explained in the article to be far less informative, almost unrealistically so. I hope that reading the paper itself shows whether those two conditions were also replicated. Also it must be questioned by what manner participants are categorized as liberal or conservative; were moderates/independents allowed to participate?

  • Alex

    I do not think it as serious science. First you need control group: something that do not reflect race, such as a race-neutral name like John Peterson. Also, you need a clear dividing between “liberal” and “conservative”, and preferably, allow “neutral” people inside. Then you should replicate the experiment in different places, to prove it as not just a coincidence.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    Thanks everyone for reading and leaving such thoughtful comments. David Pizarro has completed decades of work doing these types of studies, and there are many more studies and controls that I didn’t have time to discuss in our short-form blog post.

    If you would like more information about these studies, it can be found at David Dobb’s writeup for Wired.com about Pizarro’s work, Link: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/kill-whitey-its-the-right-thing-to-do/ or by listening to Pizarro’s EDGE talk Link: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.pizarro.html or the chapter he wrote about those studies Link: http://www.peezer.net/storage/Pizarro%20PublicationsChaptersDitto%20Pizarro%20Tannenbaum%20.pdf (PDF)

    Thanks again for reading!
    Jen

  • BILL7718

    @krissy: It sure sounds like you are saying that science doesn’t do anything useful based on your observation that this study is not useful. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume that you meant “Why couldn’t these scientists have done something useful?”

  • Jamie

    As far as I am concerned this is a horrible question; I would much sooner toss myself in front of the trolley rather than be responsible for the death of another.

  • whiterabbit

    In the 1960’s all and only white countries opened their borders to massive non-white immigration. Then governments and media demanded we “mix together.” Now those same governments and medias are calculating that by the year 2040, there won’t be a single white majority nation left on the planet, and that this is a “good thing.” If this was done to all and only black countries, people would quickly recognize it for the genocide it is. “Anti-racism” is a codeword for anti-white.

  • Lordclydeofomar

    Honestly, it would depend on which situation was actually in progress. When it comes to sacrificing one person to save 100 others, I don’t think most people are going to be thinking about names, race or taste in music. Hell, I’ll push em both to save 200

  • Periapsis

    My answer is neither. One choosing to sacrifice himself to save others on his own free will to save others is heroism. To sacrifce another person against his or her will is murder in my view. This is a horrible question to ask people, and it is opening a door to an abyss that stares back.

  • Daesmon

    I would kill Chip, because who the hell names their kid Chip? And Hiroshima was never acceptable, sick bastards.

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