Thursday, June 09, 2016

Researchers help explain why we favor a black and white approach to morality

Public Release: 7-Apr-2016
Researchers help explain why we favor a black and white approach to morality
Would you kill one innocent person to save five? Choose your answer wisely: Your popularity may depend on it
University of Oxford

Would you kill one innocent person to save five?

Choose your answer wisely: your popularity may depend on it. New research from Oxford and Cornell Universities shows people gauge others' trustworthiness based on their moral judgments. The findings can help explain why snap judgements about morality tend to be based on a set of absolute moral rules (such as "don't kill innocent people"), even if we might make different decisions when given more time.

Jim A.C. Everett, Oxford PhD student and Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University, worked with Molly Crockett from Oxford and David Pizarro from Cornell University to test whether our default reliance on moral rules has an evolutionary basis. Their conclusion, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General: People who are seen as holding to moral absolutes are more trusted and more valued as social partners.

Mr Everett explained: 'We compared two schools of thought about morality. Consequentialist approaches say we should aim to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, even if this means causing some harm - like killing one person to save five. In contrast, deontological approaches focus on moral rules and ideas of rights and duties, such that certain things (like killing an innocent person) are wrong even if they maximize good outcomes (like saving extra lives). People usually default to the deontological style of morality, suggesting these moral rules have in some way been coded into human nature. But why?'

Seeking to explain this, Mr Everett said 'Psychologists have argued deontological intuitions arise from 'irrational' emotional responses, but our work suggests another explanation: popularity. If people who stick to moral absolutes are preferred as social partners, expressing this view will reap benefits for oneself. Over time, this could favor one type of moral thinking over another in the overall population. And this makes sense - we shudder at the thought of a friend or partner doing a cost/benefit analysis of whether you should be sacrificed for the greater good. Rather than reflecting erroneous emotional thinking, making moral judgments based on rules may be an adaptive feature of our minds.


However, simply deciding whether or not to sacrifice an innocent person was not the only thing that mattered: how the choice was made was crucial. Someone who had decided to sacrifice one life to save five but had found that decision difficult was more trusted than someone who had found the decision easy.

And it wasn't always the case that those who refused to kill were trusted more. Where the person who might be sacrificed indicated a specific desire to live or a willingness to die, people favoured individuals who respected those wishes, even if that involved killing. Professor Pizarro said, 'This helps explain why we appear to like people who stick to these intuitive moral rules--not because they are sticklers for the letter of the law, but because the rules themselves tend to emphasize the absolute importance of respecting the wishes and desires of others.'

One final conclusion may come as no surprise - the researchers say their findings show that our day-to-day moral decisions don't fit into the neat categories defined by moral philosophers. Instead, real life morality is suited to the complexity of real life situations.


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