Study says empathy plays a key role in moral judgments

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.

and 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 and Favaloro University in Argentina, address two key questions related to -making: First, what specific aspect of emotional responding is relevant for these judgments? Second, is this aspect of emotional responding selectively reduced in utilitarian or enhanced in non-utilitarians?

"A number of recent studies support the role of emotions in moral judgment, and in particular a dual-process model of moral judgment in which both automatic emotional processes and controlled drive moral judgment," 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 but also from diminished emotional processing and reduced empathy."

The researchers' findings show there is a key relationship between moral judgment and empathic concern in particular, specifically feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress. In a series of experiments, utilitarian was revealed to be specifically associated with reduced empathic concern, and not with any of the demographic or cultural variables tested, nor with other aspects of empathic responding, including personal distress and perspective taking.

The study of 2748 people consisted of three experiments involving moral dilemmas. In two of the experiments, the scenario was presented to participants in both "personal" and "impersonal" versions.

In the first experiment's "personal" version, participants were told they could push a large man to his death in front of an oncoming trolley to stop the trolley from killing five others in its path. In the "impersonal" version, participants were told they could flip a switch to divert the trolley.

In the second experiment's "impersonal" scenario, participants were given the option of diverting toxic fumes from a room containing three people to a room containing only one person. In the "personal" scenario, participants were asked whether it was morally acceptable to smother a crying baby to death to save a number of civilians during wartime.

The final experiment included both a moral dilemma and a measure of selfishnessnes. The moral dilemma asked participants if it was permissible to transplant the organs of one patient, against his will, to save the lives of five patients. In the selfishness measure, participants were asked if it was morally permissible to report personal expenses as business expenses on a tax return to save money. This experiment provided the researchers with a sense of whether utilitarian responders and selfish responders are alike in having lower empathetic concern. In other words, do utilitarians endorse harming one to save many simply because they endorse harmful, selfish acts more generally? The results suggest that the answer is no; utilitarians appear to endorse harming one to save many due to their reduced empathic concern and not due to a generally deficient moral sense.

In each experiment, those who reported lower levels of compassion and concern for other people—a key aspect of empathy—picked the utilitarian over the non-utilitarian response.

However, other aspects of , such as being able to see the perspective of others and feel distress at seeing someone else in pain, did not appear to play a significant role in these moral decisions. Similarly, demographic and cultural differences, including age, gender, education and religiosity, also failed to predict moral .

"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. "

Explore further: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas

More information: Read the full study, "Low Levels of Empathic Concern Predict Utilitarian Moral Judgment," here: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3617220/

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Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (2) May 22, 2013
Unrestrained empathy is suicidal. Stupidity aside, the consistent focus on pathologizing those who are more selfish in research and academic institutions will eventually wither away as suicidal behavioris selected out by darwinian dynamics.

The argent against my prediction is that the academy is selling lies deliberately on behalf of the selfishelites who want the downtrodden losing classes to embrace their own slavery. In this case, those 'selling' empathy are the moat selfish and deceitful of all. And thus they will continue to survive and thrive as they collect ever larger salaries to spread their message of embracing servituded as 'empathy' . This is how neitschze described modern christianity. However modern caitalist based university systems are even more ruthless than institutionalized religions in their pursuit of steepening class structure in their favor.

Yes.... You 'lack empathy' for wanting a reasonable stansard of living for you and your own. Better yet kill yourself.
freethinking
1 / 5 (2) May 23, 2013
Progressives love to harm one in order to appease their conscious. As long as no harm comes to them, they will do anything for the greater good.

But How about this moral dilemma. Would you give your life to save a good man? Would you give your life to save an evil man?

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