When more information leads to greater willingness to sacrifice

Stephan Lewandowsky

When more information leads to greater willingness to sacrifice: moral dilemmas and utilitarian accessibility

Can it be moral to kill? Can we sacrifice a life to save many others? Or is killing always wrong? This fundamental question looms large in the philosophy of ethics. On the one hand, deontologists such as Immanuel Kant, argue that the morality of an action is not judged by its consequences, but by the nature of that action. According to Kant, some actions—such as killing or lying—are intrinsically wrong and hence can never be justified. In a nutshell, deontological morality can be expressed as “Do the right thing. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

As we recently noted on this blog, this moral absolutism can yield disturbing outcomes: The prohibition against lying would make it deontologically moral to tell the Gestapo the truth about the Jewish family being sheltered by your neighbors.

Those disturbing implications of deontological moral imperatives are overcome by utilitarian (or “consequentialist”) ethics, which considers the consequences of one’s actions as one important benchmark for morality. On a utilitarian account, lying to the Gestapo to save a family would be considered moral because it avoids horrendous suffering. Indeed, on a utilitarian account, it would be moral to sacrifice a few people to save the lives of many others.

How do people navigate this ethical landscape? Are they following Kant and the deontologists or the consequentialists?

A large body of research has established that people are quite utilitarian in their moral judgments, but that they place considerable importance on the type of one’s actions in addition to their consequences. Thus, as we noted on this blog earlier, people judge identical harm to be “less wrong” if it arises as a side effect of a justifiable action rather than as a direct material consequence. In the classic trolley problem, two actions that have an identical outcome—namely, sacrificing one life to save 5 others, are judged very differently depending on the nature of the action:

We are reluctant to push someone to their death, even if it saves 5 lives, whereas we find it easier to operate a switch that ultimately entails the same consequences but without personal involvement.

recent article in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review revisited some of the classic moral dilemmas, such as the trolley problem in the above video, using a new and more balanced framing. The team of researchers led by Petko Kusev ensured that all consequences of all possible actions were presented in the problem framing and decision question. For example:

“….The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to hit a switch near the tracks that will cause the trolley to proceed to the right, where the lone workman’s large body will stop the trolley. The lone workman will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved. The only way to save the life of the lone workman is not to hit the switch near the tracks. The five workmen will die if you do this, but the lone workman will be saved. Choose the option which is more appropriate for you:

Sacrifice one workman in order to save five workmen
Sacrifice five workmen in order to save one workman.”

The italicized sentence is the critical addition compared to previous versions of the trolley problem, which focused on saving the 5 workmen without providing a symmetrically-stated alternative about saving 1 (large) workman. Moreover, in contrast to previous version of the moral problems using a binary yes/no question on only one of the decision alternatives, Kusev and colleagues offered a choice between both utilitarian alternatives and their consequences.

The results of the study are shown in the figure below, which shows the number of participants who chose to save 5 lives (as opposed to 1) across a number of conditions:

First consider the two panels of the figure, ignoring the other variables for now: The panel on the right refers to the novel framing of the problem, as in the vignette above with the italicized sentence present. The panel on the left refers to the more conventional presentation, in which the italicized sentence was absent. It is very clear that people are more likely to save 5 lives at the expense of 1 life, if the options are presented with all consequences of all possible actions. In fact, statistically the odds of that choice were nearly 20 times larger when a dilemma was presented with full information than when it was presented with only partial information.

Next consider the differences between the light and dark gray bars, which refer to the type of involvement. In the personal involvement condition, you are asked to push a large workman into the path of the trolley (either off a bridge or from beside the track: the experimenters presented two slightly different versions of the dilemma, labeled Trolley and Footbridge, that we need not be concerned with here). In the impersonal condition, you flick a switch that results in the same downstream consequences but without the need to get personal with your victim. It is clear from the figure that people are reluctant to kill close-up and personal, regardless of how the problem is presented. Statistically, the odds are 5 times greater that people will save 5 lives if they can do so in an impersonal manner than if they have to personally push the life-saver-victim onto the tracks.

Kusev and colleagues conclude that when people are presented with the full implications of their actions, they are more likely to weigh their choices in a manner that is consistent with utilitarian ethics.

Intriguingly, Kusev and colleagues also found that people took the least time to make their decision when they were given the full information and when they chose to save 5 lives at the expense of 1, irrespective of whether the involvement was personal or impersonal. In striking contrast, when only partial information was provided (i.e., the italicized sentence in the vignette above was absent), people were much slower to decide, and the decision to save 5 lives took a particularly long time when it involved personal contact. Clearly, when the utilitarian options are not fully spelled out, people take a long time to decide that they should, after all, personally take one life to save 5 others. This dilemma is far less conflicting—and hence quicker to resolve—when all options are spelled out.

Article focused on in this post:

Kusev, P., van Schaik, P., Alzahrani, S., Lonigro, S., & Purser, H. (2016). Judging the morality of utilitarian actions: How poor utilitarian accessibility makes judges irrational. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-016-1029-2.

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