Social Neuroscience 10 (5):551-560 (2015)

Guy Kahane
Oxford University
Research into moral decision-making has been dominated by sacrificial dilemmas where, in order to save several lives, it is necessary to sacrifice the life of another person. It is widely assumed that these dilemmas draw a sharp contrast between utilitarian and deontological approaches to morality, and thereby enable us to study the psychological and neural basis of utilitarian judgment. However, it has been previously shown that some sacrificial dilemmas fail to present a genuine contrast between utilitarian and deontological options. Here, I raise deeper problems for this research paradigm. Even when sacrificial dilemmas present a contrast between utilitarian and deontological options at a philosophical level, it is misleading to interpret the responses of ordinary folk in these terms. What is currently classified as “utilitarian judgment” does not in fact share essential features of a genuine utilitarian outlook, and is better explained in terms of commonsensical moral notions. When subjects deliberate about such dilemmas, they are not deciding between opposing utilitarian and deontological solutions, but engaging in a richer process of weighing opposing moral reasons. Sacrificial dilemmas therefore tell us little about utilitarian decision-making. An alternative approach to studying proto-utilitarian tendencies in everyday moral thinking is proposed.
Keywords Sacrificial dilemmas  Moral decision-making  Morality  Utilitarian judgment
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