In a recent study, scientist found that when people are given the choice to let one person die in order to save the many, people choose to allow the one to die.
The scenario used to test participants was this:
Imagine a runaway boxcar heading toward five people who can't escape its path. Now imagine you had the power to reroute the boxcar onto different tracks with only one person along that route.
Would you do it?
Supposedly, most people chose to reroute the boxcar so that only one person died, instead of five.
According to Science Daily, this “moral dilemma” study, done at Michigan State University, was the first of its kind and published in the research journal Emotion.
The results? About 90 percent of the participants pulled a switch to reroute the boxcar, suggesting people are willing to violate a moral rule if it means minimizing harm.
What they found was that people could overcome the Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” when faced with a moral dilemma of killing one person to save five or more.
"What we found is that the rule of 'Thou shalt not kill' can be overcome by considerations of the greater good," said Carlos David Navarrete, lead researcher on the project.
Navarrete, an Evolutionary psychologist, studies how we come to moral judgments and if our behaviour follows suit. While philosophers posed this moral question for decades, Navarrete put it to the test in a behavioural experiment, set in a virtual environment, “with the sights, sounds, and consequences of our actions thrown into stark relief” according to the study.
The research participants were presented with a 3-D simulated version of the classic dilemma though a head-mounted device. Sensors were attached to their fingertips to monitor emotional arousal.
In the virtual world, each participant was stationed at a railroad switch where two sets of tracks veered off. Up ahead and to their right, five people hiked along the tracks in a steep ravine that prevented escape. On the opposite side, a single person hiked along in the same setting.
As the boxcar approached over the horizon, the participants could either do nothing — letting the coal-filled boxcar go along its route and kill the five hikers — or pull a switch (in this case a joystick) and reroute it to the tracks occupied by the single hiker.
Out of 147 participants, 133 pulled the switched causing one person to die, but the result of that action saved five people. Only fourteen people did not pull the switch causing five people to die. Three of those fourteen people were indecisive and threw the switch back to the original position, which caused the five people to die, instead of just the one person to die. The others did not pull the switch at all, but the result of their indecisiveness caused five people to die, instead of just the one.
This study was consistent with previous non-virtual research, but the study also showed that the participants who did not pull the switch were more emotionally aroused than those who did.
The reasons for this are unknown, although it may be because people freeze up during highly anxious moments — akin to a solider failing to fire his weapon in battle, Navarrete said.
"I think humans have an aversion to harming others that needs to be overridden by something," Navarrete said. "By rational thinking we can sometimes override it — by thinking about the people we will save, for example. But for some people, that increase in anxiety may be so overpowering that they don't make the utilitarian choice, the choice for the greater good."