Volume 170, January 2018, Pages 95-101
A central tenet of contemporary moral psychology is that people typically reject active forms of utilitarian sacrifice. Yet, evidence for secularization and declining empathic concern in recent decades suggests the possibility of systematic change in this attitude. In the present study, we employ hypothetical dilemmas to investigate whether judgments of utilitarian sacrifice are becoming more permissive over time. In a cross-sectional design, age negatively predicted utilitarian moral judgment (Study 1). To examine whether this pattern reflected processes of maturation, we asked a panel to re-evaluate several moral dilemmas after an eight-year interval but observed no overall change (Study 2). In contrast, a more recent age-matched sample revealed greater endorsement of utilitarian sacrifice in a time-lag design (Study 3). Taken together, these results suggest that today’s younger cohorts increasingly endorse a utilitarian resolution of sacrificial moral dilemmas.
Here is a portion of the Discussion section:
A vibrant discussion among philosophers and cognitive scientists has focused on distinguishing the virtues and pitfalls of the human moral faculty (Bloom, 2017; Greene, 2014; Singer, 2005). On a pessimistic note, our results dovetail with evidence about the socialization and development of recent cohorts (e.g., Shonkoff et al., 2012): Utilitarian judgment has been shown to correlate with Machiavellian and psychopathic traits (Bartels & Pizarro, 2011), and also with the reduced capacity to distinguish felt emotions (Patil & Silani, 2014). At the same time, leading theories credit highly acclaimed instances of moral progress to the exercise of rational scrutiny over prevailing moral norms (Greene, 2014; Singer, 2005), and the persistence of parochialism and prejudice to the unbridled command of intuition (Bloom, 2017). From this perspective, greater disapproval of intuitive deontological principles among recent cohorts may stem from the documented rise in cognitive abilities (i.e., the Flynn effect; see Pietschnig & Voracek, 2015) and foreshadow an expanding commitment to the welfare-maximizing resolution of contemporary moral challenges.