Originally published May 22, 2013
Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Those who tend to say "yes" when faced with this classic dilemma are likely to be deficient in a specific kind of empathy, according to a report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Philosophers and psychologists have long argued about whether there is one "right" answer to such moral questions, be it utilitarian ethics, which advocates saving as many as possible, even if it requires personally harming an individual, or non-utilitarian principles, which mandate strict adherence to rules like "don't kill" that are rooted in the value of human life and dignity.
In their new report, 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, address two key questions related to moral decision-making: First, what specific aspect of emotional responding is relevant for these judgments? Second, is this aspect of emotional responding selectively reduced in utilitarian respondents or enhanced in non-utilitarians?
Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Classic moral dilemmas are often defined by the conflict between a putatively rational response to maximize aggregate welfare (i.e., the utilitarian judgment) and an emotional aversion to harm (i.e., the non-utilitarian judgment). Here, we address two questions. First, what specific aspect of emotional responding is relevant for these judgments? Second, is this aspect of emotional responding selectively reduced in utilitarians or enhanced in non-utilitarians? The results reveal a key relationship between moral judgment and empathic concern in particular (i.e., feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress). Utilitarian participants showed significantly reduced empathic concern on an independent empathy measure. These findings therefore reveal diminished empathic concern in utilitarian moral judges.
Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment
Book (Penguin Books)