Who shalt not kill? Brain power leads to level-headedness when faced with moral dilemmas

June 9, 2008

Should a sergeant sacrifice a wounded private on the battlefield in order to save the rest of his troops? Is euthanasia acceptable if it prevents needless suffering? Many of us will have to face some sort of extreme moral choice such as these at least once in our life.

And we are also surrounded by less dramatic moral choices everyday: Do I buy the hybrid? Do I vote for a particular presidential candidate? Unfortunately, very little is known beyond philosophical speculation about how people understand morality and make decisions on moral issues.

Past research suggests that moral dilemmas can evoke strong emotions in people and tend to override thoughtful deliberation and reasoning. However, more recent neuroimaging research has discovered that sometimes people are capable of voluntarily suppressing these emotional reactions, allowing for decisions based on reasoning and careful deliberation of the consequences of one's actions.

A new study appearing in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, appears to support this neuroimaging evidence. Adam Moore of Princeton University and his colleagues Brian Clark and Michael Kane of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro tested this notion by measuring individuals' working memory capacity -- essentially their ability to mentally juggle multiple pieces of information. The idea was that people who could best juggle information would be able to control their emotion and engage in "deliberative processing."

The researchers then asked participants to make decisions in emotionally provocative situations. One example:

"A runaway trolley hurtles toward five unaware workmen; the only way to save them is to push a heavy man (standing nearby on a footbridge) onto the track where he will die in stopping the trolley."

In these emotion laden scenarios, people with high working memory capacity were not only more consistent in their judgments but their answers indicated that they were considering the consequences of their choices in a way that the other participants were not.

"This suggests that emotional reactions to moral issues can drive our judgments and motivate action but can also blind us to the consequences of our decisions in some cases," write the authors. Ultimately, people with higher working memory can be relied upon to make more consistent decisions and are able to more deeply consider consequences in these highly charged instances.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Porn not to blame for public health issues

Related Stories

Porn not to blame for public health issues

November 1, 2017
The recent attempt by Conservative MPs to label porn a public health crisis in Canada is part of a web of attacks against gender and sexual minorities—and a diversion from necessary policy debates on ending sexual violence. ...

This is why child obesity rates have soared

October 18, 2017
New data on almost 13 million people, from 200 countries around the world, points to a tenfold increase in rates of obesity among children and adolescents over the last four decades. This is the largest study of its kind ...

Using a foreign language changes moral decisions

April 28, 2014
Would you sacrifice one person to save five? Such moral choices could depend on whether you are using a foreign language or your native tongue. A new study from psychologists at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra ...

Research tests how people make moral decisions using classic dilemmas

August 24, 2016
Is it acceptable and moral to sacrifice a few people's lives to save many others? An academic at City University London has developed a new model with colleagues to test in an unbiased way how people make such decisions using ...

New studies show moral judgments quicker, more extreme than practical ones—but also flexible

November 28, 2012
Judgments we make with a moral underpinning are made more quickly and are more extreme than those same judgments based on practical considerations, a new set of studies finds. However, the findings, which appear in the journal ...

How do we make moral judgements?

November 26, 2014
In a target article published in the current issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) Neuroscience, Université de Montréal and IRCM neuroethics experts open the black box of moral intuitions by suggesting a new ...

Recommended for you

Scientists find key to regenerating blood vessels

November 23, 2017
A new study led by researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) identifies a signaling pathway that is essential for angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing vessels. The ...

Researchers find infectious prions in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease patient skin

November 22, 2017
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)—the human equivalent of mad cow disease—is caused by rogue, misfolded protein aggregates termed prions, which are infectious and cause fatal damages in the patient's brain. CJD patients ...

Surprising roles for muscle in tissue regeneration, study finds

November 22, 2017
A team of researchers at Whitehead has illuminated an important role for different subtypes of muscle cells in orchestrating the process of tissue regeneration. In a paper published in the November 22 issue of Nature, they ...

Study reveals new mechanisms of cell death in neurodegenerative disorders

November 22, 2017
Researchers at King's College London have discovered new mechanisms of cell death, which may be involved in debilitating neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

How rogue immune cells cross the blood-brain barrier to cause multiple sclerosis

November 21, 2017
Drug designers working on therapeutics against multiple sclerosis should focus on blocking two distinct ways rogue immune cells attack healthy neurons, according to a new study in the journal Cell Reports.

New simple test could help cystic fibrosis patients find best treatment

November 21, 2017
Several cutting-edge treatments have become available in recent years to correct the debilitating chronic lung congestion associated with cystic fibrosis. While the new drugs are life-changing for some patients, they do not ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Jun 09, 2008
What if the large guy doesnt fall in front of the trolley, or even worse, doesnt get killed. Theyd have me for murder! Why not just go with the classic "HEY, WATCH OUT!"
not rated yet Jun 09, 2008
If you have to actually push the guy off of the bridge why not jump yourself? What gives you the right to live in place of the large man?
5 / 5 (1) Jun 09, 2008
That was not an option in the question. Apparently someone here is low functioning. Of course you fat guy gets it. Notice the problem said "the only way".
not rated yet Jun 09, 2008
There is only one scenario where pushing the fat guy onto the tracks would be acceptable: if he was responsible for the runaway trolley, and his actions were deliberate.

Murdering someone to save five people from being accidentally killed is unacceptable.

Murder is a choice, watching five people get killed is unlucky. Choosing to kill is much worse than being unlucky.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 09, 2008
This is Frances Kamm's 'Principle of Permissible Harm'
In this case Kamm would say the act was wrong because we commited a wrong act (ie, murdered the heavy man) so it is wrong whatever the ultimate outcome.
On the other hand, it would have been ok, had we diverted the trolley (and still killed the heavy man) because in this case our original action was intended to do good and therefore correct.

Reference with Kant and Deontological ethics.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2008
In his science fiction novel, 'Ring World', Larry Niven presents a very similar problem: do nothing and permit the incredibly huge 'Ringworld' to be destroyed by an imminent catastrophe, or activate a 'mechanism' that would push it out of harm's way, but immediately kill hundreds of millions of people (well, kind of) in the process.

It's a bit more involved than that, but apart from several orders of magnitude it is so similar to the above example I thought I should mention it.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2008
That was not an option in the question. Apparently someone here is low functioning. Of course you fat guy gets it. Notice the problem said "the only way".

Well okay but I still couldn't kill a person to save others. It goes against my morals, even considering that not helping the five men when given the ability to do so could in itself make me their killers in a way. I rather would be blamed for not saving them than kill a man directly.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.