Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Understanding Responses to Moral Dilemmas

Deontological Inclinations, Utilitarian Inclinations, and General Action Tendencies

Bertram Gawronski, Paul Conway, Joel B. Armstrong, Rebecca Friesdorf, and Mandy Hütter
In: J. P. Forgas, L. Jussim, & P. A. M. Van Lange (Eds.). (2016). Social psychology of morality. New York, NY: Psychology Press.


For  centuries,  societies  have  wrestled  with  the  question  of  how  to  balance  the  rights of the individual versus the greater good (see Forgas, Jussim, & Van Lange, this volume); is it acceptable to ignore a person’s rights in order to increase the overall well-being of a larger number of people? The contentious nature of this issue is reflected in many contemporary examples, including debates about whether it is legitimate to cause harm in order to protect societies against threats (e.g., shooting an abducted passenger plane to prevent a terrorist attack) and whether it is acceptable to refuse life-saving support for some people in order to protect the well-being  of  many  others  (e.g.,  refusing  the  return  of  American  citizens  who  became infected with Ebola in Africa for treatment in the US). These issues have captured the attention of social scientists, politicians, philosophers, lawmakers, and citizens alike, partly because they involve a conflict between two moral principles.

The  first  principle,  often  associated  with  the  moral  philosophy  of  Immanuel  Kant, emphasizes the irrevocable universality of rights and duties. According to the principle of deontology, the moral status of an action is derived from its consistency with context-independent norms (norm-based morality). From this perspective, violations of moral norms are unacceptable irrespective of the anticipated outcomes (e.g.,  shooting  an  abducted  passenger  plane  is  always  immoral  because it violates  the moral norm not to kill others). The second principle, often associated with the moral philosophy of John Stuart Mill, emphasizes the greater good. According to the principle of utilitarianism, the moral status of an action depends on its outcomes, more  specifically  its consequences  for  overall  well-being  (outcome-based  morality).