A new in-depth study of moral reasoning challenges the popular notion that people are unable to think through difficult moral problems and rely primarily on automatic “gut” reactions to make tough decisions.The new findings, which shed light on how we make moral and political decisions on polarizing issues such as abortion, immigration, and waterboarding, reveal that adolescents and adults can—and do—reason deeply about highly complex moral issues.
“When confronted with very, very hard questions about the value of life, decisions are grounded in multiple and sometimes competing considerations about harm, welfare, individual rights, fairness, and justice,” said lead author Audun Dahl, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “And contrary to popular belief, people are quite able to articulate all of this when asked to justify how they arrived at their decision.”
The “trolley dilemma”
The study explores moral reasoning in the context of the famous “trolley dilemma.” In 1967, moral philosopher Philippa Foot introduced the now-classic hypothetical dilemma: A train is hurtling down a track about to hit and kill five people, but a bystander can throw a switch and divert the train to another track, saving five lives. If they do, however, they will kill one person who is tied to the other track. What is the right thing to do? Most people say they would divert the train.
In a second scenario, five people are tied to a track. A bystander on a footbridge above the track can push one man to his death on the track, taking one life to save five others. In this scenario, most people say it would be wrong to push the man, although the number of saved lives would be the same as in the earlier scenario with the switch.
Why do people respond so differently to the two scenarios? In 2001, an influential neuroscience paper …