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Empathy — Or Lack Thereof — Plays Key Role in Moral Judgments

Empathy -- Or Lack Thereof -- Plays Key Role in Moral Judgments  Is it OK to harm one person to save many others? 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 newly released study.

In their new study, co-authors Liane Young, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, and Ezequiel Gleichgerrcht, Ph.D., of Favaloro University, found that there is a “key relationship” between moral judgment and empathic concern, specifically feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress.

“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 cognitive processes drive moral judgment,” said Young.

Young said when people must choose whether to harm one person to save many, emotional processes typically support one type of non-utilitarian response, such as “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 cognitive control, but also from diminished emotional processing and reduced empathy,” she said.

In a series of experiments, utilitarian moral judgment was revealed to be specifically associated with reduced empathic concern, according to the researchers.

The study of 2,748 people consisted of three experiments involving moral dilemmas. In two of the experiments, a scenario was presented to participants in both “personal” and “impersonal” versions, according to the researchers.

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 selfishness.

The researchers asked participants if it was permissible to transplant the organs of one patient, against his will, to save the lives of five patients. To measure selfishness, researchers asked participants if it was morally permissible to report personal expenses as business expenses on a tax return to save money.

This experiment was designed to provide the researchers with a sense of whether utilitarian responders and selfish responders are alike in having lower empathetic concern. For example, do utilitarian responders endorse harming someone to save many because they endorse harmful, selfish acts more generally?

The results suggest that the answer is no, according to the researchers. They found that utilitarians appear to endorse harming one person 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, the researchers reported.

However, other aspects of empathy, 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, according to the research team. They also found that demographic and cultural differences, including age, gender, education and religion, also failed to predict moral judgments.

The study was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Source: Boston College


Empathy — Or Lack Thereof — Plays Key Role in Moral Judgments

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Empathy — Or Lack Thereof — Plays Key Role in Moral Judgments. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 25 May 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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