When is attempted murder more acceptable than harming someone by accident?

By Ed Yong | March 26, 2010 12:16 pm

Attempted_murderDan, a scientist working on dangerous viruses, is giving a visitor a tour of his lab. Before this happens, all test tubes containing disease-causing agents must be sealed in a chamber with a flick of a switch. Unfortunately, the switch broke recently and it hasn’t been repaired yet. Entering the room means certain death. Dan knows this but still, he bids the visitor to enter. The inevitable happens; they become sick and they die.

Would you consider Dan’s actions to be immoral? What if, in a parallel universe, the visitor miraculously survived? Does that change your views of Dan’s deeds? What if Dan didn’t know about the broken switch? For most of us, the answers are clear. If Dan knew about the broken switch, he was wrong to send in the visitor to potential death, regardless of whether they actually perished. But bizarrely, not everyone would see it that way.

Liane Young from MIT found that people with brain damage in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) are unusually likely to brush off failed attempts at harming other people. They frowned upon actual murder with the usual severity but compared to normal people, they were twice as likely to think that attempted murder was morally permissible. Young thinks that the VMPC is vital for our ability to deduce respond emotionally to the intentions of other people, an important skill when it comes to making moral judgments.

This research builds on a large amount of earlier work, which demonstrated the VMPC’s pivotal role in assessing harmful actions. In classic moral dilemmas, like whether you’d push someone in front of a runaway train to save five others, the VMPC is incredibly active. And previous studies have found that people with damaged VMPCs make unusual choices when faced with such dilemmas.

Young worked with nine people with similar damage to both sides of their VMPC. They were all intelligent, capable of logical reasoning and fully aware of what counts as normal social behaviour. They just failed to apply that knowledge in emotional situations, and they have problems dealing with feelings of empathy, guilt or regret.

Young gave them a series of hypothetical scenarios, including Dan’s murderous lab tour, as well as tales of poisoned coffees, jellyfish-infested waters, rickety bridges, allergic diners and drowning swimmers. Every tale had multiple versions. In some, the protagonist intended to harm another person and in others, they didn’t. In some, the unfortunate ‘victim’ died, and in others, they survived.

These stories revealed that patients with damaged VMPCs judge people more by the results of their actions than their intentions. As long as no one was harmed, they judged actions to be morally permissible, even if the perpetrator had a homicidal goal. Amazingly, they even felt that attempted murder was more acceptable than cases where people came to harm accidentally! The ends entirely justified the means.

In contrast, people with undamaged brains, or those with damage to other parts, came down far more heavily on attempted murder. In all other scenarios – if someone actually died, if they were harmed accidentally or if no one was hurt – all three groups of people delivered similar verdicts.

Young suggests that these strange verdicts reflect the role that the VMPC serves in processing emotions. Without it, the patients didn’t experience the typical emotional kick that most of us feel when we see someone harming another person. Robbed of this gut feeling, they rely solely on their knowledge of the scenarios’ outcomes to deliver their judgments.

Attempt-to-harm

Reference: Neuron http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.003

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Comments (6)

  1. Markus Hirsch

    “Young thinks that the VMPC is vital for our ability to deduce the intentions of other people, an important skill when it comes to making moral judgments.”

    Maybe I’m overthinking or misinterpreting this, but it sounds as if Young doesn’t know whether the brain damaged patients didn’t know Dan’s intentions, or knew but didn’t care. Isn’t that something she could have found out by simply asking them?

  2. J. Goard

    I want to know the correlation between non-harm/failed-attempt differential and accidental/successful differential. Are people who are inclined to overlook the attempted murder also more likely to blame an accident as if it were murder? Or are there very different mechanisms involved in blaming others for evil intentions, versus absolving others for benign intentions after a traumatic event?

  3. Markus, after asking Liane, I’ve made a change to the wording of that sentence. Hopefully it makes more sense now.

  4. Nils Ross

    It’s hard to be convinced that the part of our mind that reasons through intent is necessarily linked to empathy — or any kind of emotion — at all. Did this study take into account the possibility that the problem is literally that the VMPC or some other part is simply associated with a more ‘dry’ assessment of intent?

    That is, are people with VMPC damage as capable of assessing WHAT intent is of a particular sequence of actions in isolation of ANY consequences?

  5. Jim Blue

    The links at the bottom, More On Morality, are broken.

  6. Markus Hirsch

    Markus, after asking Liane, I’ve made a change to the wording of that sentence. Hopefully it makes more sense now.

    Thanks. That does make it a bit clearer. I have to admit I’m a bit puzzled by the complexity of these examples. The way it’s written, Dan knows (or at least has reason to expect) he’s condemning his visitors to certain death, but he’s not directly killing them – the viruses do. From what I know of the classic moral dilemmas, people are more willing to let one person die to save five others than to actively harm that one person to the same effect. I wonder how the VMPCs would have fared if Dan had taken a more directly active role in the visitors’ demise by trying to take them out with a gun?

    Are people who are inclined to overlook the attempted murder also more likely to blame an accident as if it were murder? Or are there very different mechanisms involved in blaming others for evil intentions, versus absolving others for benign intentions after a traumatic event?

    In a similar vein, what happens if Dan behaves in a manner that is not certain to lead to harm but makes it much more likely? Say, Dan didn’t know the switch was broken because he couldn’t be bothered with all the usual safety procedures? Or, Dan gets behind the wheel drunk as a skunk and mows down some unsuspecting pedestrian (or not)?

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