Those who would sacrifice one person to save five others score low on one particular measure of empathy, but not other measures, according to research published this month in the scientific journal PLoS One.
The study of 2748 people by Ezequiel Gleichgerrcht of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology in Argentina and Liane Young of Boston College found individuals who experienced low levels of compassion and concern for other people were more likely to embrace utilitarian ethics, which advocates the greatest good for the greatest number — even if that means harming a minority in the process.
“Utilitarian moral judgment in the current study was specifically associated with reduced empathy and not with any of the demographic or cultural variables tested,” they wrote in the study. “Moreover, utilitarian moral judgment was determined uniquely by levels of empathic concern, independent of other aspects of empathic responding including personal distress and perspective taking.”
The study consisted of three separate experiments involving three moral dilemmas.
In the first experiment, the participants were given the option of either killing one person to save five others from an oncoming trolley, or not killing the person and allowing the five others to die. In the “personal” version of this classic moral dilemma, the participant was told he or she has to push an abnormally obese person in front of the trolley to stop it. In the “impersonal” version, the participant was told he or she could flip a switch to divert the trolley.
The “impersonal” version of the second experiment involved giving the participants the option of diverting toxic fumes from a room containing three people to a room containing only on person. In the “personal” version, the participants were asked whether it was morally acceptable to smother a crying baby to death to save the lives of civilians, including the baby, during wartime.
In the final experiment, the participants were asked whether it was morally acceptable to report personal expenses as business expenses to save money. Unlike the previous experiments, this one did not test utilitarian versus non-utilitarian ethics. Rather, it simply measured selfishness.
“A unique benefit of including the taxes scenario in Experiment 3 was to obtain a preliminary sense of whether utilitarian responders and plainly immoral agents alike are lower in empathic concern. Do utilitarians endorse harming one to save many simply because they endorse harmful, selfish acts more generally?” Gleichgerrcht and Young explained.
Across 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 empathy, such as being able to take the perspective of others and feeling personal distress when seeing another in pain, appeared to have no significant and consistent effect on moral judgments. Demographic and cultural differences, including age, gender, education and religiosity, also failed to predict moral judgments.
Previous research has linked the endorsement of utilitarian ethics to abstract reasoning, while the rejection of utilitarian ethics has been linked to emotional intuitions. Gleichgerrcht and Young’s study suggested that the lack of compassion also plays an important role.
“Diminished emotional responses, specifically, reduced empathic concern, appear to be critical in facilitating utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas of high emotional salience,” they said. “Utilitarian judgment may arise not simply from enhanced cognitive control but also from diminished emotional processing.”