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Uncertainty and utilitarian moral decision-making

Alzahrani, S. (2016). Uncertainty and utilitarian moral decision-making. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


A long history of research in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience has explored moral utilitarian research questions, decision mechanisms and behaviour.
For example, in the question ‘Is it appropriate for you to sacrifice one workman in order to save five workmen?’ moral utilitarian theorists (consequentialism) would
answer with ‘Yes’, as utility maximisation and moral justification is achieved by the consequence of this moral decision (‘saving the greatest number’). Accordingly,psychologists have explored the psychological validity and range of behavioural violations of this utilitarian normative prediction. For example, theorists haveproposed a dual-process moral utility theory (e.g., Bartels, 2008; Cushman et al.,2006; Greene, 2007; Greene, et al., 2001; Haidt, 2001; Pizarro & Bloom, 2003;Young & Koenigs, 2007; Evans & Stanovich, 2013), and argued that this moral utilitarian model predicts rational and irrational behaviour for morally sensitive decision alternatives.

The dual-process moral utility theory assumes that two psychological systems are involved in moral decision-making: (i) deliberative and effortful (cognitive processing) and (ii) automatic and effortless (emotional activations). Moreover, the theory predicts ‘emotional interference’ for moral scenarios with personal involvement (to push a stranger on to the track in order to save the five strangers) inducing (i) irrational behaviour and (ii) decision delay (longer response time), even when participants make a rational choice in dilemmas with personal involvement. These predictions were empirically confirmed (e.g., Greene et al., 2001) - respondents judged moral dilemmas with personal involvement (‘to push’ in footbridge dilemma)
as less appropriate, than equivalent moral dilemmas with impersonal involvement (‘to hit a switch’ in the trolley dilemma). Greene and colleagues concluded that moral
14 dilemmas with personal involvement were more emotionally salient and cognitively demanding, as respondents took significantly more time deciding about moral dilemmas with personal involvement.

In nine experiments, I have developed further the empirical moral utilitarian method, and empirically explored and identified a generic utilitarian cognitive factor – ‘uncertainty’ (caused by partial and insufficient descriptions of utilitarian information) – that predicts rationality and irrationality in moral decision-making. As the experimental results confirmed, this factor had an independent influence (beyond the type of dilemma and involvement – previously confounded in experimental research) on moral utilitarian behaviour. An increased accessibility to utilitarian information decreased psychological uncertainty, inducing rational moral utilitarian behaviour across the experiments. Moreover, in contrast to the dual-process utilitarian
theory, when making a rational choice respondents took less time with scenarios offering full utilitarian accessibility (full text description of the scenarios and moral choice questions and supported by visualisation of decision consequences), than with scenarios offering partial textual descriptions of moral utilitarian information (as with all moral experimental studies published since Thomson, 1985). This finding is
important, as it offers methodological improvements to the study of moral decisionmaking and reveals issues with the dual-process moral utilitarian theory predictions
and assumed psychological mechanisms. Neuroscience research should build upon the methodological improvements and empirical evidence provided in this
dissertation, and explore further the plausibility that the emotional activations predicted by the dual-process moral utility theory are, in fact, degree of uncertainty
(experiments 1 to 9) caused by limited accessibility to utilitarian information.

Furthermore, the results form experiments 4 and 5 revealed no difference (as 15 predicted by previous research, e.g., Tassy et al., 2013) in the behavioural utilitarian patterns between moral choice and moral judgements. I found that uncertainty significantly predicted both moral choice and moral judgements – additional evidence of the generalisability of uncertainty as a major factor that should be taken into account by moral utilitarian researchers. Moreover, in experiments 6, 7, 8 and 9 I discovered additional and not previously considered psychological factors influencing moral utilitarian behaviour. In experiments 6 and 7 the respondents, in their effort to maximise utility, were influenced by the utility ratio of the moral trade-offs. For example, and in addition to the eliminated uncertainty (caused by insufficient utilitarian information), the increased number of victims induced respondents’ moral rational behaviour. This result can be attributed to enhanced reward activations for utilitarian moral dilemmas, offering ‘saving of more victims’. In experiments 8 and 9 I also found that content of utility is a psychological factor predicting moral utilitarian behaviour. Processing moral utilitarian contents, which consist of things we can own or previously have owned (e.g., experience with utilitarian trade-offs) – nonhuman and inanimate stimuli – induced respondents’ utilitarian choice rationality.

The results from nine experiments are novel and have the potential to contribute to the theoretical development of both normative and psychological moral decisionmaking.
The research findings will inform theories of judgement, decision-making, moral reasoning, experimental philosophy and neuroscience about the psychological
factors (not previously explored) underlying moral decision-making, and their influence on utilitarian rationality. Moreover, it is envisaged that the research findings and knowledge from this dissertation have practical applications. For example, in the development of training interventions (for special security units and law enforcements agencies), the relevant authorities should take into account the influence of decision
16 uncertainty, content of utility (decision training paradigms), and utility ratios involved in moral trade-offs.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > School of Health & Psychological Sciences Doctoral Theses
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