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Scientists claim that harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making

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Posted December 12, 2014
Picture: Morality. Image credit: Joel Duggan via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Picture: Morality. Image credit: Joel Duggan via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

People assign a higher value to the harm which is made to anonymous others than harm which is made to them. This hyper-altruistic tendency was discovered by famous neuroscientist Molly J. Crockett and her colleagues at the University College London. “Our results provide evidence for a circumstance in which people care more for others than themselves. Determining the precise boundaries of this surprisingly prosocial disposition has implications for understanding human moral decision making and its disturbance in antisocial behavior,” they think.

Ability to care about other people is a fundamental element underlying our moral judgments. For instance, it is well-known that antisocial individuals are less able to care about the anguish of other people. But how much do we care about the well-being of others? Authors of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences distinguish three alternative hypotheses.

“It has been widely shown that people value others’ monetary outcomes, evident in a willingness to donate money to anonymous strangers and cooperate in social dilemmas. Nevertheless, these data overwhelmingly indicate people care about the monetary outcomes of others far less than their own monetary outcomes,” the researchers say.

However, psychological experiments exploring empathy have different implications. These studies reveal that people care about agony of others as much as their own if they are able to empathize with the suffering person. Finally, scientists conjectured that moral sentiments, such as responsibility, can motivate some people to care about interest of others even more than for their own needs.

“We investigated this question by inviting subjects to trade off profits for themselves against pain experienced either by themselves or an anonymous other person. Subjects made choices between different amounts of money and different numbers of painful electric shocks. We independently varied the recipient of the shocks (self vs. other) and whether the choice involved paying to decrease pain or profiting by increasing pain,” the scholars explain.

Interestingly, majority of the respondents valued suffering of others more than their own pain. They paid a larger amount of money in order to reduce pain experienced by others than their own suffering. Interestingly, this behavior was linked to slower decision-making. Crockett and her associates think that the slow response rate indicates the presence of rational deliberation.

Article: Crockett M.J., 2014, Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, source link.

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