Adina Roskies and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in Scientific American:
Cognitive science and moral philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but in the past decade they have become partners. In a recent issue of Cognition, the Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene and colleagues extend this trend. Their experiment utilizes conventional behavioral methods, but it was designed to test a hypothesis stemming from previous fMRI investigations into the neural bases of moral judgments (see here and here).
In their study Greene et al. give subjects difficult moral dilemmas in which one alternative leads to better consequences (such as more lives saved) but also violates an intuitive moral restriction (it requires a person to directly or intentionally cause harm to someone else). For example, in the “crying baby” dilemma subjects must judge whether it is wrong to smother their own baby in order to save a large group of people that includes the baby. In this scenario, which was also used by the television show M.A.S.H., enemy soldiers will hear the baby cry unless it is smothered. Sixty percent of people choose to smother the baby in order to save more lives. A judgment that it is appropriate to save the most lives, even if it requires you to suffocate a child, is labeled “utilitarian” by Greene et al., whereas a judgment that it is not appropriate is called “deontological.” These names pay homage to traditional moral philosophies.
Based on previous fMRI studies, Greene proposes a dual-process model of moral judgments. This model makes two central claims. First, when subjects form deontological judgments, emotional processes are said to override controlled cognitive processes. In other words, the subjects who are unwilling to smother the baby are being swayed by their emotions, and they can’t bear the idea of hurting a helpless child. This claim has been supported by a flurry of recent behavioral studies and neural studies. Greene’s dual-process model also claims that controlled cognitive processes cause utilitarian moral judgments. The new Cognition study puts that second claim to the test.