Saturday, April 24, 2010

Radiolab: Killing Babies, Saving the World

Here is another fascinating short episode (about 20 min) from Radiolab (from last year). The show is about how we think about what is right and wrong, and the difference between our emotional and the rational part of the brain. The program starts with a moral puzzle of asking if one would kill his or her baby, if this act would result in saving the lives of many (you have to listen to the podcast to get the proper scenario). The discussion here is fascinating and I like Jad's response that, of course, no father could ever think of doing that (the results actually suggest that 50% would choose to save many lives). However, this got me thinking about honor-killings - the despicable act of killing a son or a daughter (usually daughters) for the sake of saving the honor of the family. Here is a case where cultural issues perhaps short-circuit the rational part of the brain so much that one is willing to kill one's offspring simply over a disagreement (usually associated with marriage choices). While socially despicable, this may be an interesting premise to explore in testing the limits of such moral puzzles (and just to be clear, unlike the scenario presented above, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever regarding honor-killings!).

The most fascinating part of the program dealt with our increasing ability to deal with abstract thoughts - and how it is changing the way we use our brain. Josh Greene, here, is certainly hopeful that we can learn to think about long-scale problems, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation and is optimistic about about our the future of our species. Also, I totally loved the experiment where the task of remembering large numbers resulted in an overwhelming choice of eating a chocolate cake over fruit salad. Confused about how all of this related to saving the world? Well check out the full podcast.


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