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Are doing harm and allowing harm equivalent? Ask fMRI

Looking at a moral choice Test subjects who feel that doing active harm is morally the same as allowing harm to occur will show more brain activity. The notion that active harm is worse appears to be automatic, a psychological default requiring less thought. (Credit: Cushman Lab/Brown University)

Are doing harm and allowing harm equivalent? Ask fMRI

Actions trigger immediate indignance. Evaluating passive harms requires more thought

From the 2 December 2011 Science News article

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — People typically say they are invoking an ethical principle when they judge acts that cause harm more harshly than willful inaction that allows that same harm to occur. That difference is even codified in criminal law. A new study based on brain scans, however, shows that people make that moral distinction automatically. Researchers found that it requires conscious reasoning to decide that active and passive behaviors that are equally harmful are equally wrong.

For example (see below), an overly competitive figure skater in one case loosens the skate blade of a rival, or in another case, notices that the blade is loose and fails to warn anyone. In both cases, the rival skater loses the competition and is seriously injured. Whether it is by acting, or willfully failing to act, the overly competitive skater did the same harm.

“What it looks like is when you see somebody actively harm another person that triggers a strong automatic response,” said Brown University psychologist Fiery Cushman. “You don’t have to think very deliberatively about it. You just perceive it as morally wrong. When a person allows harm that they could easily prevent, that actually requires more carefully controlled deliberative thinking [to view as wrong].”

December 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment


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