Friday, September 02, 2011

Active versus passive attributions based on perceived morality

Is it more morally wrong to actively cause a bad thing to happen than it is to passively allow the same bad thing to happen?  So for example, if you bowl a 10 pound ball down a lane and hurt a baby (don’t blame me, this is what they used in the research), is that worse than standing next to the lane and allowing the ball to pass by you and hurt the baby?  It would have been really easy to stop or divert the ball.  But you didn’t do it.  Most people still judge that the bowlers act is worse than the spectator.

But some new research finds that this same thing happens in reverse.  The worse you think the consequences are, the more you think the person actively caused it to happen.  For example, subjects were asked to judge if an ER doctor “ended the patient’s life” or “allowed it to end.”  The more immoral the behavior, the more likely the person was to judge it as actively ending the patient’s life, even if the action was the same. The example in the research is: subjects were presented with one of these two scenarios

 “The ER doctor thought “the poor man deserves to die with dignity so I will disconnect him from the machine.””

“The ER doc thought “the bum deserves to die, so I will disconnect him from the machine to save resources for other people.”” 

Most people judged the second case as more morally wrong.  But the more interesting part is that people who read the second case were more likely to say that the ER doctor “ended the patient’s life” rather than “allowed the patient’s life to end.”   So because it was less moral, their moral judgment worked in reverse and caused them to perceive the doctor’s act differently – as more active.

Or here is another one:

“Sarah’s OB/GYN tells her that her first trimester fetus has a Vitamin B6 deficiency.  She needs to change her diet significantly or the fetus will not develop and will die. 

Subjects who had more pro-life opinions were more likely to characterize this as “making the fetus die” than “allowing the fetus to die.”  Also, they were more likely to say that Sarah “made the levels of Vitamin B6 decrease” than “allowed the levels of Vitamin B6 to decrease.” 

So if something is morally wrong, you actively did it.  You can’t passively do something that ends up with morally wrong consequences. People change their opinion of what you did based on what happens.