Is there a problem greater than death

Morality: how much does the individual count?

Is it acceptable to sacrifice one person for the benefit of several? Or even kill him for it? The answer to this ethical dilemma is less universal than you might think, as the largest study to date reveals. Accordingly, most people consider such a sacrifice to be legitimate. In some countries, however, the proportion of those who approve of such a sacrifice is noticeably lower, the researchers report.

When it comes to ethics and morals, this is the ultimate dilemma scenario: An approaching train threatens to run over five people. However, you can prevent this by throwing a switch. Then the train drives onto a siding and only kills one person there. Would you sacrifice these people to save the other five? And how about if you could only stop the train if you had to actively push the individual off a bridge onto the tracks?

No universal rules

This scenario sounds constructed, but especially with regard to autonomous driving it is realistic - and highly topical. In an emergency, a computer-controlled vehicle has to make precisely these decisions: Does it protect its driver in the event of an impending accident? Or does it sacrifice it if several pedestrians are rescued for it? And when do pedestrians count more? Studies using interactive online scenarios show that people do not always agree on these questions.

Typically, most people consider it acceptable in the classic railroad scenario to switch the switch and thus sacrifice one person in favor of the five. The inhibitions in the second scenario are much greater, however: far fewer test participants would be willing to actively plunge one person to their death in order to save the other - this applies worldwide. However, the degree of acceptance also depends on cultural factors and even the language in which you take the test can play a role.

Random sacrifice is more acceptable than active killing

But how big are the cultural differences? And does nationality also play a role in this? To find out, Edmond Awad of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his colleagues have now carried out the largest study ever on this moral dilemma. They presented the two classic railroad scenarios and a third scenario related to the first to 70,000 online test persons in 42 countries and ten language regions.

The result: As expected, this study also showed a clear gradation between the scenarios. The accidental death of a person as a result of the switch is most likely to be accepted worldwide - an average of 81 percent of the test persons approved this action. In contrast, only 51 percent of the participants found the active killing of a person for the benefit of the five track walkers acceptable.

This proves that there is a universal gradation, say the researchers: The willingness to accept the death of a person is greater worldwide than to instrumentalize the death of a person.

Country-specific results for the three scenarios. © Awad et al. / PNAS

Striking country differences

But if you compare the reactions in individual countries, there are definitely differences, as Awad and his team report. In Germany, for example, 82 percent of the participants thought the first scenario was acceptable; the approval ratings in other European countries and in the USA were similar. Active killing of a person for the benefit of the many found 49 percent correct in Germany, and around 60 percent in the USA and Great Britain.

The situation was different in the Asian countries: In China, for example, only 58 percent of the participants would switch the switch in the first scenario. A person would bump off the bridge only 32 percent, the study found. Contrary to assumptions, this is not the case in the entire Asian culture: In Vietnam, India and Singapore the acceptance values ​​were almost similar to those in Europe, in China, Taiwan and Japan, on the other hand, they were significantly lower.

The decision is shaped by social structure

Why is that? The researchers suspect that the response to this moral dilemma is strongly influenced by so-called relationship mobility. This indicates how often people enter into new relationships and friendships in the course of their lives and how easily this can be achieved outside of traditional social structures such as family or colleagues. Typically, this relationship mobility is high in western countries, but significantly lower in China or Japan.

The current results suggest that people in countries with low relational mobility are more likely to shy away from controversial or unpopular decisions. Because that could damage their reputation in their rather inflexible social structure. “People may fear that they could be perceived as 'monsters' if they are willing to sacrifice someone's life for the common good,” says Awad's colleague Iyad Rahwan.

"It is too early to establish a clear, causal connection between people's moral choices and the ease with which they form new relationships," says Rahwan. "However, there is increasing evidence that the way in which personal reputation is maintained in a particular culture can influence the moral intuitions of people from that culture." (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020; doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1911517117)

Source: Max Planck Institute for Human Development

January 24, 2020

- Nadja Podbregar