Greater good

How do individuals react to dilemmas about harming someone to save many lives?

Balance ScalesUtilitarian ethics advocate saving as many lives as possible, even if it means an individual will be harmed. Where as non-utilitarian principles mandate strict adherence to a 'don't kill' paradigm promoting values of human life and dignity.

In a new research where in they studied around 2748 people, co-authors Liane Young, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, and Ezequiel Gleichgerrcht of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Favaloro University in Argentina, explore two important questions regarding moral decision-making: What aspect of emotional responding is relevant for such judgements? Is this aspect of emotional responding different among those believe in utilitarian or non-utilitarian ethics?

"A number of recent studies support the role of emotions in moral judgement, and in particular a dual-process model of moral judgment in which both automatic emotional processes and controlled cognitive processes drive moral judgement," explained Young. "For example, when people must choose whether to harm one person to save many, emotional processes typically support one type of non-utilitarian response, such don't harm the individual, while controlled processes support the utilitarian response, such as save the greatest number of lives. Our study showed that utilitarian judgment may arise not simply from enhanced cognitive control but also from diminished emotional processing and reduced empathy."

The researchers establish a key relationship between moral judgement and empathic concern in particular, specifically feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress. In a number of experiments, utilitarian moral judgement was specifically related to decreased empathic concern, and not with any of the demographic or cultural variables [at least not with the ones tested], nor with other aspects of empathic responding, including personal distress and perspective taking.

"Diminished emotional responses, specifically, reduced empathic concern, appear to be critical in facilitating utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas of high emotional salience," the researchers concluded. "

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