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  • Dhruv Kaushik

The Morality of Human Nature

My Name is Dhruv Kaushik, born 13th February 1999 and I will die because humans are by nature selfish.

The opener to this piece is more about getting something off my chest and less about making a statement. A self-imposed quarantine gave me a lot to think about over the past few weeks and I came to the conclusion that I, much like a number of the ‘Generation Z-ers’ will die because humans have always been inherently selfish and no matter how close the apocalypse, we as a species would rather perish than let morality take over for once in our 200,000 years of existence. I’ll put brakes on the cynicism and take a dive into moral philosophy for a bit. To do that, I must go to the classic trolley problem, first introduced by Robert Phillip. The trolley problem is an experiment that suggests that there is a trolley approaching five workers on a track and the subject is standing next to a switch that would switch the course of the trolley and instead of killing five workers, it would run over only one. This is a popular problem because it forces us to make a choice between two options, both of which aren’t very pleasant, so to speak. But, the end goal of the experiment was to see, whether humans stick to a moral code or not. In a survey, 90% of the subjects chose to switch tracks and by large we find this to be the logical solution. The simple explanation to this result of the experiment is given by Utilitarians who argue that we must tailor all decision making towards the good of “the greatest number” even if it involves killing a human. The utilitarian argument is shunned if we tweak the experiment a little. What if there is only one track and you stand on a bridge over the track with a man who is big enough to stop the trolley on the track, if he is run over by the trolley. In that case, would you push that man down to save the five workers? In this case, only 10% of the subjects said they would kill one man to save five. The logic is the same here too, one life taken to save five but the results of the two surveys stand in vast contrast. According to one subject in the latter experiment, “Pushing someone over the bridge felt somewhat personal.” Furthermore, what if you were the big guy who could save five lives, would you jump in front of the trolley? On paper, maybe yes, but virtual simulations would disagree.

Decision making on an individual level involves a web of complex emotions, rationale, logic, ethics, morals and many other things and everything that we do daily; every decision that we make, big or small, involves countless subconscious and conscious processes. We weigh the pros and cons, we think about the impact of even the smallest of decisions we make every day. Sometimes we do things because the society tells us to, sometimes we do things because our moral compass tells us to, sometimes we do things even though the law tells us not to. Every day we are faced with choices to make, we can either do the ‘right’ thing or the ‘wrong’. For example, we can either choose to wear red sneakers or not wear them. Each decision made by a different individual would involve a different thought process going into making that choice. Neither of the decisions is right or wrong, they merely have consequences, which could be the loss of reputation in society if one chooses the former.

This is where the trolley problem poses a paradox for decision making and an example of what I believe to be true, i.e. there are no rights or wrongs in the truest sense but only consequences. Many philosophers and scholars, the likes of Aristotle and Kant, surely much smarter than I am, disagree with my conclusion and have given their verdict on what is right or wrong. One such theory about decision making that I am fond of discussing is the ‘Rational Decision Making Theory’ propounded by Hebert Simon. This theory was crafted to make decision making by governments more effective. Simply put, this theory says that the ‘administrator’ who runs the government is responsible for decision making. They are posed with problems and must look for solutions to the problems, though it sounds simple but is much more complicated in reality. Simon says that the administrator, at a given point in time, has several problems to address and must choose what problems to fix first, obviously using their own rationale. Simon also says that the administrator must maintain their ‘zone of acceptance’ with their subjects. In a democracy that would simply mean ‘Do what will get you re-elected.’ Essentially, what this means is that for administrators, the right thing to do is what keeps them popular. For instance, you have a choice between carrying out a march while also burning houses and shops of people from community ‘M’ or building better infrastructure for primary education, you must choose the former, in order to maintain your zone of acceptance. In the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ debate whatever the administrators do is correct because they act rationally, especially when they maintain their zone of acceptance simultaneously. I must emphasize, Simon’s theory is one of the most widely accepted theories in public administration, yet the biggest flaw in the theory, the selfish nature of humans remains at the center of all decision making. All political structures across the globe work with this inherently flawed principle theory. Every administrator has their biases, ideologies, beliefs and most importantly moral compass. At the end of the day, it is humans who make decisions for the entire world population and humans are inherently selfish by nature. The administrator fails to look beyond his/her short term goals which will eventually lead us all to an apocalyptic end.

So why ramble on for a thousand words about ‘decision making’ both in moral philosophy and public administration when you start by stating the cause of your death? The answer this time is a little complicated because, at an institutional level across the world, all governments run by ‘administrators’ try to achieve a simple goal of being in power till they are alive, which means they will not act on climate change because the superstructure of the corporates funding their election campaigns cannot afford to make vast changes in their capitalistic schemes to “save the environment”. For example, in waste management, the corporate owner and the administrator cannot find conscientious ways to dispose off their factory waste like toxic chemicals or tons of plastic because that would be too expensive. Therefore they both decide that it’s best that we dump all this waste in a remote village of Cambodia or a nearby river, everybody wins that way.

They will not fix the education system or improve healthcare facilities and they certainly will not prepare for an inevitable pandemic which is most likely to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. The two disciplines I talked about, moral philosophy and public administration go hand in hand simply because humans run governments around the world and at the end of the day humans are selfish and fail to see beyond their short-sightedness. Administrators would not jump in front of the trolley themselves because frankly, no one would do that because self-sacrifice has little to no mention in Simon’s theory or other experiments of philosophy. After all, that is not human nature. We may be kind, but survival instincts have always prevailed over all emotions for humans and they will continue to do so. The problem is not just the administrators and the big corporations who refuse to sacrifice their today for a better tomorrow, it is every human in existence, we are simply programmed that way. A poor roadside juice vendor would not bother about what straws they use, their prime concern would be to get enough food for their family. All humans are programmed to do what is best for them and what helps them survive every day. And at the end of the day survival instincts are all about surviving today and then tomorrow and then the day after which is why nobody is preparing a better world for someone else 30 years down the line.

In 2050 another Xi Jinping would refuse to regulate the Wuhan slaughter markets’ work because they want to maintain their zone of acceptance and another pandemic will engulf the world. In 2050, another Donald Trump would refuse to take action on climate change to maintain their zone of acceptance. Therefore, in 2050 I will die to the latest spread virus from China because none of the administrators’ ‘zone of acceptance’ allowed them to provide for better healthcare facilities and prepare for ‘yet another’ epidemic or it could be because the earth has become inhabitable, could be both, who knows?


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