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Are drunk people more utilitarian?

Posted November 17, 2014
Image credit: Adrian Pike via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Image credit: Adrian Pike via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Drunk people tend to become more utilitarian. That is the conclusion of the recent study carried out by French scientists. This somewhat funny finding casts doubts on one of the leading theories of moral psychology.

Experiments asking individuals to solve hypothetical moral dilemmas have become very popular over the last decades. One of such dilemmas is called trolley problem and has two main versions: switch and footbridge.

“In both scenarios respondents are asked whether they would be willing to sacrifice one life to save five others facing certain death by a runaway trolley. However, the form of this utilitarian judgment is very different in the two scenarios. In the switch problem, five lives can be saved only by pressing a switch to divert the trolley onto a separate track with a single person on it. In the footbridge problem, the trolley can only be stopped by pushing a large man from a footbridge onto the tracks to block the oncoming trolley,” the authors of the study published in Cognition explain.

Interestingly, previous research showed that people solve these two versions quite differently. Although the majority of respondents would press the switch, only minority would push the fat person from the bridge. This finding was used to support so called dual-process theory developed by Joshua D. Greene and his colleagues.

According to this theory, our moral decisions are governed by two systems: an automatic system, which is driven by emotions, and conscious system, which is related to rational deliberation. Deontological decisions are caused by the automatic system. Meanwhile, utilitarian decisions are a consequence of conscious system.

“Greene and colleagues have argued that the increased resistance towards pushing the large man off of a bridge in the footbridge scenario is driven by the fact that it is more personal and direct, leading to a stronger emotional response in most individuals and that utilitarian decision making in this scenario requires increased deliberative reflective reasoning,” the scientist say.

However, Aaron A. Duke at Yale University and Laurent Bègue University of Grenoble-Alpes remained skeptic. They investigated how ethical dilemmas are solved by drunk people. Scholars recruited participants at two bars located in the French city, Grenoble. Interestingly, they found out that the more intoxicated the respondent was, the more utilitarian he or she was likely to be. These results suggest that something is wrong with the dual-process theory.

“Alcohol intoxication is associated with increased emotional reactivity and selective attention towards emotional cues, which according to Greene’s dual-process conceptualization, should lead to increased deontological (non-utilitarian) inclinations, the opposite of what was observed here,” the psychologists claim.

Article: Duke A. A. and Begue L., 2015,The drunk utilitarian: Blood alcohol concentration predicts utilitarian responses in moral dilemmas; Cognition; Volume 134, Pages 121–127, source link.

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