Beyond Killing One to Save Five

Ryazanov, Arseny A., Shawn Tinghao Wang, Dana Kay Nelkin, Craig R. M. McKenzie, and Samuel C. Rickless. "Beyond Killing One to Save Five: Sensitivity to Ratio and Probability in Moral Judgment." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 108 (2023): 104499.

A great deal of current research on moral judgments centers on moral dilemmas concerning tradeoffs between one and five lives. Whether one considers killing one innocent person to save five others to be morally required or impermissible has been taken to determine whether one is appealing to consequentialist or non-consequentialist reasoning. But this focus on tradeoffs between one and five may obscure more nuanced commitments involved in moral decision-making that are revealed when the numbers and ratio of lives to be traded off are varied, and when the probabilities of each outcome occurring are less than certain. Four studies examine participants' reactions to scenarios that diverge in these ways from the standard ones. Study 1 examines the extent to which people are sensitive to the ratio of lives saved to lives ended by a particular action. Study 2 verifies that the ratio rather than the difference between the two values is operative. Study 3 examines whether participants treat probabilistic harm to some as equivalent to certainly harming fewer, holding expected ratio constant. Study 4 explores an analogous issue regarding the sensitivity of probabilistic saving. Participants are remarkably sensitive to expected ratio for probabilistic harms while deviating from expected value for probabilistic saving. Collectively, the studies provide evidence that people's moral judgments are consistent with the principle of threshold deontology.

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