When faced with a moral dilemma — for example, is it OK for a police officer to torture an alleged bomber to find hidden explosives that could kill many people — men are typically more willing to say yes for the sake of the greater good, according to a new study.
The researchers found that women were less likely to support the torturing of the suspect, even if it would save more lives.
According to the study’s findings, this gender difference in moral decisions is caused by a stronger emotional aversion to harmful action among women. But researchers say they found no evidence for gender differences in the rational evaluation of the outcomes of harmful actions.
“Women are more likely to have a gut-level negative reaction to causing harm to an individual, while men experience less emotional responses to doing harm,” said lead research author Rebecca Friesdorf in the study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In a reanalysis of data from 6,100 participants, Friesdorf, a graduate student in social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, teamed with Paul Conway, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Cologne, and Bertram Gawronski, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to examine gender differences in judgments about moral dilemmas.
Participants were asked 20 questions that posed various moral dilemmas, including decisions about murder, torture, lying, abortion, and animal research.
The study examined two contrasting philosophical principles that relate to ethics.
In deontology, the morality of an action depends on its consistency with a moral norm, the researchers explain. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher who was the most famous proponent of the theory, argued that it was always wrong to lie, even if a murderer asked whether his intended victim was inside a house so he could kill him.
The contrasting principle of utilitarianism holds that an action is moral if it maximizes utility, which means the greatest good for the most people. From a utilitarian view, an action could be ethical in one situation and unethical in another, depending on the potential outcome, the researchers noted.
Using an advanced statistical procedure to quantify the strength of deontological and utilitarian inclinations, the research team found that women were more likely than men to adhere to deontological principles. However, the researchers found no evidence for gender differences in utilitarian reasoning.
The findings suggest that women have a stronger emotional aversion to causing harm than men, according to the researchers.
However, men and women engage in similar levels of rational thinking about the outcomes of harmful action.
The findings are in line with previous research showing that women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people than men, while gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent, Friesdorf concluded.