Hearts and Minds: How We Think About Moral Dilemmas
Consider the following question:
You are on a bridge above a runaway train quickly approaching a fork in the tracks. On the tracks extending to the left is a group of five railway workmen. On the bridge standing near to you is a single stranger. The train is on the point of proceeding to the left, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to avoid the deaths of these workmen is for you to push the stranger off the bridge that will cause the train to come to a stop, leading to the death of the stranger.
These types of moral dilemmas are the subject of research asking this fundamental psychological question: Are people rational or emotional when making moral judgements?
Some researchers suggest that people have intuitive and emotional reactions to moral issues, and provide after the fact justifications for their intuitions (Haidt, 2001). For example, a person will intuitively choose not to push the man, feeling disgust at the thought, and subsequently develop a rational justification for this response. Others say these intuitive responses can be suppressed by using reasoned deliberation (Pizarro, Uhlmann, & Bloom, 2003). For example, a person may override their decision not to push the man when instructed to give a rational response (Pizarro et al., 2003).
A recent study by Eoin Gubbins and Ruth M. J. Byrne (2014) has shown that while certain moral dilemmas lead to favor either rational or emotional justifications, people can suppress these tendencies and access either one of these processes when primed to do so.
To test their theory, participants were given moral dilemmas that were classified as personal or impersonal. Personal dilemmas involved direct physical contact, or face to face interaction, with another person, as in the moral dilemma posed above. Impersonal dilemmas involved indirect contact with another person, such as the following:
You are at the wheel of a runaway train quickly approaching a fork in the tracks. On the tracks extending to the left is a group of five railway workmen. On the tracks extending to the right is a single railway workman. The train is on the point of proceeding to the left, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to avoid the deaths of these workmen is for you to hit a switch on your dashboard that will cause the train to proceed to the right, leading to the death of the single workman.