Are you familiar with Watchmen? The popular graphic novel turned semi-popular summer blockbuster describes a deeply dystopian future in which Richard Nixon has been declared supreme ruler, constant threats of nuclear attack are on everyone's mind, and the practice of playing a vigilante super hero has been outlawed. The characters of Watchmen walk a fine line of human morality: Would the most good come from always doing the right thing? That is, is it always the best course of action to prevent others from entering into harm's way? Or, would the most good come from doing a little bit (or a lot) of bad? The characters of Watchmen walk through murky moral waters throughout the novel, sometimes making decisions to stick to their principles. Other times, characters justify doing a great amount of terrible to promote ultimate good. On this point, one of the central characters, Adrian Veidt, famously quips, "My new world demands less obvious heroism."
Watchmen poses some very interesting questions about our moral lives. Specifically, when is doing bad sometimes a good thing?
In the paper we read this week in SWAG, Conway and Gawronski (2013) were wondering if moral judgments are simple decisions between doing what is wrong (deontological moral judgments) v. doing what may eventually cause the most good (utilitarian moral judgments), or alternatively, if people simultaneously weigh the wrongness and utility of actions in all their moral judgments?
In the actual studies, the researchers used a process disassociation methodology to test this question. Specifically, participants were asked to respond to a number of moral dilemmas: In one example participants are asked if a time traveler would be justified in killing Hitler if it would stop WWII. In this scenario, have to make a choice to harm someone or not, but the result of the harm would be a net gain for all involved. In this scenario, deontological and utilitarian responses would lead to opposite reactions: From a utilitarian perspective, killing Hitler will ultimately save the lives lost in WWII, and so the killing should absolutely occur. In contrast, the deontological perspective would suggest that killing of any kind is wrong, and so the time traveler should not act.
Responses on this scenario were then compared to responses on a scenario where deontological and utilitarian perspectives are aligned (e.g., going back and time to kill a person who harms, but does not kill others, is wrong both because killing is wrong and because the killing isn't useful). This procedure allows the examination of moral judgments for independent deontological and utilitarian components.
Interestingly, the researchers found that moral judgments are not as simple as weighing harm over utility. Instead, they found that both deontological judgments (i.e., worries about harm being wrong) and utilitarian judgments (i.e., worrying about the usefulness of harmful acts) independently operate on our moral decision-making. Moreover, using deontological or utilitarian rules for making moral judgments is predicted by individual differences. For instance, being more disposed to caring about others' distress is associated with making moral decisions that are deontological. In contrast, having high need for cognition (i.e., people who like to think and consider things) is associated with weighing the utility of acts that harm others more.
Overall, our SWAG group thought that this research shows how fundamental both deontological and utilitarian judgments are to our moral reactions. Importantly, the research seems to help us better understand that judgments of harm and utility occur simultaneously and have differential weights on our actions based on individual differences (e.g., in empathy) or based on the situation (e.g., in Study 2, where cognitive load led people to be less utilitarian in their judgments). I'd love to see a paradigm like this applied directly in evaluations of the actions of real people in real situations--for example, how deontological and utilitarian judgments shape decisions to cheat in sports because the cheating will lead to both personal glory and the increase of financial support for cancer survivors (i.e., Lance Armstrong).
Also, we had the opportunity to choose between three types of sweets at the meeting. No word on whether those decisions were made using deontological or utilitarian principles.
Conway P, & Gawronski B (2013). Deontological and utilitarian inclinations in moral decision making: A process dissociation approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104 (2), 216-35 PMID: 23276267