The Moral Machine: Am I An Extremist?

Episode #25 - Live at UNB with Dan Doiron is up!


Lately I’ve been on a journey to steel-man myself in all aspects of life. What do I believe? Why do I believe it? Can I really change my mind?

After our live podcast at SHAD 2019 at UNB I took the Moral Machine test by MIT’s Media Lab. The test is simple: you’re presented with a series of morality problems built in to code. Ex: a self-driving car is heading down the highway and an impossibly difficult problem comes about: hit and kill a small child or hit and kill an older person? Between code and a hard place. How will we code our morality? Rather than over-think the test I went with my first instinct to see what my monkey mind default is.

Let’s break down my results and try to be as honest as possible about my first instincts.


The character I saved the most was a businessman and the character I killed the most was a standard-issue man. If you had to call me something that fits in a neat box, I suppose you could call me a businessman. Was I instinctively protecting myself? The character I killed the most was a man. Is this an effort to appear brave? I’d like to think it is. I’ve been taught that in a time of crisis women & children get to safety first. Perhaps I’m being too generous with myself.


Saving more lives means a lot to me. Apparently much more so than the general population. Is it the potential that each human being has if they are allowed to live? 5 potential lives = 5x greater potential than 1 life? I think I believe this. There’s something to be said about collaboration here. According to thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari, the only reason Homo Sapiens is in the position it is, is because we have the power to make sense to each other and collaborate on a mass scale. Maybe more lives matters to me because of the potential of human collaboration.


This is interesting! Protecting passengers doesn’t matter to me. Hmm. Instinctively I thought that if the owner of the vehicle chose to take the risk to be on the road there should be no intervention if the options are the owners of the vehicle and it’s passengers vs. innocent pedestrians on the road. This makes sense to me but apparently I’m an extremist compared to the general population when it comes to extreme ownership.


I’m much more serious than the general population about upholding the law, apparently. This REALLY surprises me. My instinct is my own morality and the cultural agreements I’ve made with my neighbors above the legal code. In this test, apparently not.


This was the closest I came to meeting the average. Apparently avoiding intervention does not matter to me more than it matters. This also surprises me. In fact I thought my instinct was selecting against intervention, corresponding with the idea that passengers matter less than pedestrians. I.e: if a car was to go into an embankment or swerve and hit pedestrians I do not think it should swerve: intervention should be avoided. Apparently I disagree with myself.


It is more important to me to save the lives of women than men, apparently. I’m not sure why this is. The potential for life? Am I aspiring to be self-less? I’ll think more about it.


Sorry doggo lovers, I’m full team human. This isn’t controversial in my opinion.


The most surprising aspect of this one was how fence-sitting the general population was. I think this is straightforward, although emotional. I know each of my grandparents would have chosen the same thing. A young life has the potential for so much and hopefully the older person in question already had a life well lived.


Uh-oh. The real test of challenging assumptions and instincts can be hard. Apparently I have an extremist view on preferring fit people over ‘large’ people. I’m not sure why this is. Is it because I was once unhealthy in my life and have fear of going back to that place? I’ll think about it.


ANOTHER extremist view. 100% of the time I chose perceived higher social value over lower social value. On it’s face if it’s this clear-cut I’m afraid I agree: I would save a pediatrician before a thief. But does this mean I don’t believe in forgiveness and circumstance? I hope that I do.

These are exactly the kinds of culture questions we’re going to have to answer as individuals, families, communities, governments, nations and a global society.

Will we be able to code culture? We’re going to have to.

Do your own Moral Machine test!