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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Beyond Moral Dilemmas: The Role of Reasoning in Five Categories of Utilitarian Judgment

F. Jaquet & F. Cova
Cognition, Volume 209, 
April 2021, 104572


Over the past two decades, the study of moral reasoning has been heavily influenced by Joshua Greene’s dual-process model of moral judgment, according to which deontological judgments are typically supported by intuitive, automatic processes while utilitarian judgments are typically supported by reflective, conscious processes. However, most of the evidence gathered in support of this model comes from the study of people’s judgments about sacrificial dilemmas, such as Trolley Problems. To which extent does this model generalize to other debates in which deontological and utilitarian judgments conflict, such as the existence of harmless moral violations, the difference between actions and omissions, the extent of our duties of assistance, and the appropriate justification for punishment? To find out, we conducted a series of five studies on the role of reflection in these kinds of moral conundrums. In Study 1, participants were asked to answer under cognitive load. In Study 2, participants had to answer under a strict time constraint. In Studies 3 to 5, we sought to promote reflection through exposure to counter-intuitive reasoning problems or direct instruction. Overall, our results offer strong support to the extension of Greene’s dual-process model to moral debates on the existence of harmless violations and partial support to its extension to moral debates on the extent of our duties of assistance.

From the Discussion Section

The results of  Study 1 led  us to conclude  that certain forms  of utilitarian judgments  require more cognitive resources than their deontological counterparts. The results of Studies 2 and 5 suggest  that  making  utilitarian  judgments  also  tends  to  take  more  time  than  making deontological judgments. Finally, because our manipulation was unsuccessful, Studies 3 and 4 do not allow us to conclude anything about the intuitiveness of utilitarian judgments. In Study 5, we were nonetheless successful in manipulating participants’ reliance on their intuitions (in the  Intuition  condition),  but this  did not  seem to  have any  effect on  the  rate  of utilitarian judgments.  Overall,  our  results  allow  us  to  conclude  that,  compared  to  deontological judgments,  utilitarian  judgments  tend  to  rely  on  slower  and  more  cognitively  demanding processes.  But  they  do  not  allow  us  to  conclude  anything  about  characteristics  such  as automaticity  or  accessibility  to consciousness:  for  example,  while solving  a very  difficult math problem might take more time and require more resources than solving a mildly difficult math problem, there is no reason to think that the former process is more automatic and more conscious than the latter—though it will clearly be experienced as more effortful. Moreover, although one could be tempted to  conclude that our data show  that, as predicted by Greene, utilitarian  judgment  is  experienced  as  more  effortful  than  deontological  judgment,  we collected no data  about such  experience—only data  about the  role of cognitive resources in utilitarian  judgment.  Though  it  is  reasonable  to  think  that  a  process  that  requires  more resources will be experienced as more effortful, we should keep in mind that this conclusion is based on an inferential leap.