It may be someone in a coma or even a robot, but if it has been harmed by someone else, research has shown that people perceive it as having an active mind, even if doesn’t have one in reality.
Published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the research was conducted by Psychological scientist Adrian Ward who said, “People seem to believe that having a mind allows an entity to be part of a moral interaction — to do good and bad things, or to have good and bad things done to them. This research suggests that the relationship may actually work the other way around: Minds don’t create morality, morality creates minds.”
In one study, participants who read a story about a patient in a vegetative state whose food supply was intentionally unplugged by a nurse attributed more mind to the patient than those who read that the nurse performed her job satisfactorily. Participants even saw George, a “highly complex social robot” as having a mental state when they read that George had been stabbed with a scalpel by a research scientist.
Interestingly, how much mind we “attribute” to someone may also depend on the existence of a mental state in the first place. When participants read about Sharon, a fully conscious adult human, being physically abused by her boss, she was attributed less mind by participants than those who read that her boss behaved normally. ”Victimization may cause people to dehumanize other entities — but only when these entities have a mind to begin with; entities with absent or liminal minds, in contrast, seem to gain minds as a result of victimization,” the researchers write.
The implication of this research could be strongest for issues such as animal rights, abortion, and end-of-life decisions. Take the case of abortion for example. If we think a foetus is being harmed and so attribute a mind to it, then trying to scientifically discover whether a foetus has a perceptible mental state or not doesn’t matter, if we’re going to attribute one anyway. We’ll have to find another way of figuring what the right thing to do is in such a situation.
Ward hopes to do further research into how this attributed mind influences decision making: “Exploring this relationship will allow us to understand how different ways of presenting and discussing information about minds and morality may help people see eye-to-eye on contentious issues, and potentially come to a place of mutual understanding.”