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Study: Empathy a Key Factor in Moral Judgments


By Patricia Delaney | Deputy Director of News & Public Affairs

Published: July 18, 2013

Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Those who tend to say “yes” when faced with this classic dilemma are likely to be deficient in a specific kind of empathy, according to a report co-published by Assistant Professor of Psychology Liane Young in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Young and Ezequiel Gleichgerrcht of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Favaloro University in Argentina address two key questions related to moral decision-making: First, what specific aspect of emotional responding is relevant for these judgments? Second, is this aspect of emotional responding selectively reduced in utilitarian respondents or enhanced in non-utilitarians?

The researchers’ findings show there is a key relationship between moral judgment and empathic concern in particular, specifically feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress. In a series of experiments, utilitarian moral judgment was revealed to be specifically associated with reduced empathic concern, and not with any of the demographic or cultural variables tested, nor with other aspects of empathic responding, including personal distress and perspective taking.

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