Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
Title: The basis of utilitarian moral reasoning in children and adults
Other Titles: Le basi del ragionamento morale utilitaristico nei bambini e negli adulti
Authors: Michelin, Corinna
Supervisore/Tutore: Tallandini, Maria Anna
Cosupervisore: Siegal, Michael
Issue Date: 23-Apr-2010
Publisher: Università degli studi di Trieste
The thesis is an investigation of moral reasoning in preschoolers and adults, with particular reference to the relation between intentionality judgments and moral evaluation as revealed by the “Side-Effect”-Effect (SEE), and to utilitarian judgments elicited using variations of the Trolley and Footbridge dilemmas. Utilitarianism has here been additionally studied here in relation to an important linguistic phenomenon: bilingualism, and in relation to adult mental health disorders: depression and psychopathy.
Recent evidence in fact suggests that bilingualism confers an advantage on young children’s performance task that concern measures based on understanding other’s mental states (Goez, 2003; Kovàcs, 2009; Michelin, Pellizzoni, Tallandini & Siegal, in press; Siegal, Iozzi, Surian, 2009; Siegal & Surian, 2007). This effect may be seen in terms of executive functioning abilities (e.g., Bialystok & Senman, 2004) that allow children to shift attention and focus on both the personal involving and utilitarian aspects of a moral dilemma. However, diversity in the moral judgments of monolingual and bilingual subjects can reflect cultural rather than linguistic effects that underlie differences between monolingual and bilingual groups (Hakuta, 1987; Morton & Harper, 2007; Sabbagh et al., 2006). At the same time, studies with clinical populations reveal an association between impaired emotional processing and disturbances in moral behaviour (Blair, 1995). Just as studies with bilinguals and monolinguals can be useful to better understand the cross-cultural basis or the influence of different languages that can be employed in moral cognition, studies with psychopaths and depressives that compare the moral judgments of patients with those of normal people are useful in understanding the range of moral judgment in abnormal populations.
Therefore, this doctoral thesis is aimed to investigate moral abilities in preschoolers and adults, through three groups of experiments:
1. The relation between moral judgment and the intentionality judgment both in Italian Monolingual and Italian/Slovenian Bilingual children, through the manipulation of the task presentation format, in with particular reference to the relation between intentionality judgments and moral evaluation as revealed by the “Side-Effect”-Effect (Experiment 1);
2. The cross/cultural utilitarian evaluation elicited using variation of the Trolley and Footbridge dilemmas both in Italian Monolingual and Italian/Slovenian Bilingual children and in both in Italian Monolingual and Italian/Slovenian Bilingual adults (Experiments 2, 3 and 4);
3. The utilitarian evaluation elicited using variation of the Trolley and Footbridge dilemmas in psychopathology with psychopathic and depressed patients (Experiment 5).

1. A major finding in research on moral cognition concerns the side-effect effect (SEE) in judgments of intentionality. When asked to consider situations in which agents dismiss information about the harming or helping side effects of their actions, both adults and children often judge harmful side effects as having been brought about on purpose in contrast to beneficial side effects that are judged as unintentional (Knobe, 2003a, 2003b, 2004).
In a study with American children, Leslie, Knobe, and Cohen (2006) sought to document the presence of a SEE in the intentionality judgments of 4- and 5-years-olds. In our investigation designed to probe for a SEE pattern in 3- to 5-year-olds, children were provided with vivid illustrations of the events leading to a particular beneficial or harmful outcome. A laptop computer was used on which the story events were represented simultaneously to facilitate children’s retention of details at the moment when the intentionality test question was posed. In addition, we compared the responses of a group of bilingual 3-year-olds to those of monolingual children both on measures of inhibition and the SEE (Experiment 1). The results for the first time demonstrate that simultaneous representation of story events facilitates the level of SEE responses in young children and that, under these conditions, even 3-year-olds – particularly in the case of bilinguals – are capable showing the SEE and display an early moral sense that may be enhanced through bilingual experience and socialization processes (Morton & Harper, 2007; Siegal & Surian, 2007).

2. As part of the recent surge of interest in the bases of moral cognition, substantial attention has been devoted to processes that influence the production of utilitarian moral judgements in which the outcome is based at least in part on maximizing a positive outcome for the greatest number of people (Bentham, 1789/1948). In these studies, the task is to solve dilemmas such as the “trolley” or “footbridge” dilemmas that involve harm in sacrificing one person in order to save five others (Foot, 1978; Thomson, 1986). The judgments of both children and adults have been shown influenced by certain non utilitarian considerations, like the contact principle (Hauser, 2006). Previous studies have been limited to comparisons of situations in versions of the footbridge and trolley dilemmas for which one person would be harmed as a means to saving five others. The aim of the present investigation was to determine whether young children and adults are sensitive to issues of contact the extent that they would prioritize an action to save three persons that did not involve physical contact (pulling a string to divert a trolley into the path of a single victim) over an action that would save five persons but that involves physical contact (pushing a person off a footbridge). We carried out three experiments involving 104 young children and 86 adults. In Experiment 2, the participants were Italian children aged 4, 5, and 6 years (like in Pellizzoni et al., 2009). The children were given a footbridge situation that resulted in the rescue of five persons in contrast to a trolley situation that resulted in the rescue of three. The procedure closely followed that used by Pellizzoni et al. (2009) except that the footbridge and trolley dilemmas were illustrated in a PowerPoint presentation on a laptop computer and three persons rather than five were said to be endangered in the trolley situation whereas in the footbridge situation the endangered number remained five. Moreover, after the presentation of the two dilemmas, the experimenter asked the children a direct comparison test question, again using photographs that compared the two situations in which one person would be victimized to save others from harm. In this experiment, Italian monolingual children aged 4 and 5 years favoured (75,6%) saving 3 persons when the agent was not required to have physical contact with a sacrificed victim over saving 5 persons (41,5%) with an action that involved physical contact, in the direct comparison too. A preference to save 5 persons did not emerge until the age of 6 years (85%). Experiment 3 was designed to examine the responses of children from the same geographical location but with a different cultural and linguistic background. These children had a Slovenian-Italian cultural background. There were Italian-Slovenian bilingual children, 4 and 5 years old. We carried out a 3 vs. 5 comparison using the footbridge and trolley dilemmas with Slovenian-Italian bilingual children. As bilinguals were not included in Pellizzoni et al.’s earlier studies, the children were also given the dilemmas in a second condition in a 5 vs. 5 comparison in which pulling the string in the trolley dilemma or pushing the man in the footbridge dilemma both resulted in saving five persons, albeit with harm to one person. Even at the age of 4 and 5 years, children bilingual in Slovenian and Italian judged that to save five using physical contact was preferable (67%; 74%), although in the case when in both instances there were five persons to be rescued, acting without physical contact was preferred (67%). In Experiment 4, to explore the cultural basis of the children’s responses, we compared the judgments of the Slovenian-Italian adults living in Italy with those of monolingual Italians on 3 vs. 5 and 5 vs. 5 comparisons using both dilemmas. We also gave the adults a measure of individualism-collectivism. Participants were Italian monolinguals and Slovenian-Italian adults living in the same area as the Slovenian-Italian bilingual children tested in Experiments 2 and 3. Results showed that adults bilingual in Slovenian and Italian were judged as significantly more likely than Italian only speakers to advocate the rightness of using physical contact to rescue potential victims, although in a direct comparison, both groups prioritized saving five over three persons. The Slovenian-Italians were also significantly more likely express a collectivist group orientation than their Italian counterparts. Nonutilitarian considerations powerfully influenced the moral judgments of children and adults in our studies – whether monolingual Italian speakers or bilingual in Slovenian and Italian. This result provides further support for the importance of intuitions in moral psychology in children and adults. Our findings also indicate that such intuitive considerations may be overwritten by cultural or linguistic differences, even at an early age. When the numbers to be saved differ and three people can be saved by pulling a string but five can be saved by pushing a man, most children and adults, save for the Italian 4- and 5-year-olds, opted for pushing. The Slovenian-Italian results for adults were similar to those for the Slovenian-Italian children who, unlike the younger Italian children, mostly advocated intervention on the footbridge. Bearing in mind that adults’ responses on individualism-collectivist measures were not correlated specifically with responses to the test questions concerning the footbridge or trolley dilemmas, this result can be seen in general terms as consistent with the significantly greater collectivist orientation on the part of the Slovenian-Italians with an emphasis on group solidarity. The similarities in the judgmental pattern of Slovenian-Italian children and adults support the position of Shweder et al. (1998) that intuitive constraints in cognitive development are so skeletal that these must be influenced by sociocultural constraints that channel early learning.
3. Experiment 5 was designed to determine whether adults diagnosized clinically with psychopathy or depression employ utilitarian judgments as do normal adults or whether they display a different judgmental pattern, in order to explore the role of emotions and cognition in determining moral judgments. We decided to compare two different kinds of pathologies (Psychopathy and depression) because, although having both of them difficulties at an emotional level, in the sense of guilt and in the empathy for examples, they seems to assume very different attitudes in their moral judgments. To assess the diagnosis, all patients were tested using MMPI-2 (Minesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2; Hathaway & McKinley, 1989), the more commonly used edition. In Experiment 5 we tested with both Footbridge and Trolley dilemmas psychopaths and depressed and we compared their responses with performance of normal adults in the same dilemmas. All samples, psychopaths, depressives and normal adults, received the Footbridge and Trolley dilemmas in the 3 vs. 5 version using a questionnaire format (Michelin, Pellizzoni, Tallandini, & Siegal, 2010). In the Footbridge dilemma 14 out of 21 (66.7%) of psychopaths preferred to push than not to push. In the Trolley dilemma 19 out of 21 (90.5%) of psychopaths prefer to pull the cord than not to pull it. In the direct comparison test question, 14 out of 21 (66.7%) psychopaths prefer to push and save 5 persons than to pull and save only three persons.
In the Footbridge dilemma 14 out of 19 (73.3%) depressives preferred not to push a person.
In the Trolley dilemma 10 out of 19 (52.6%) preferred not pull. In the direct comparison test question, 13out of 19 (68.4%) depressed prefer to pull the cord and save 3 persons instead of 5. If we compare the results of impaired subjects with those of Italian normal adults (Michelin et al., 2010), there emerges a significant overall effect for both the Trolley and the Footbridge. There is a difference between the diagnoses for either the Footbridge or the Trolley dilemmas, The difference in advocate intervention by pushing in the Footbridge dilemma and by pulling in the Trolley one is highly significance between these three groups. On the three measures, the psychopaths clearly want to take action: push, pull, and then they are even more likely to say push than pull than the normals and to judge according to a utilitarian calculus. Consistent with research indicating an enhanced emotional involvement in which they are preoccupied with the details of stressful situations, the depressives are nearly always anti-utilitarians. They prefer not to act on both the trolley and the footbridge - both very usual - and when asked to compare directly, strongly favour pulling to save 3 over pushing to save 5.
The findings of all these experiments support the role of emotions in the generation of moral judgments of right and wrong and can be explained by the dual-process theory of moral judgment (Green, 2001, 2004). All these findings and considerations suggest that emotions are developmentally necessary for acquiring the capacity to make moral judgments.
Ciclo di dottorato: XXII Ciclo
Keywords: utilitarian moral reasoningbilingualismpsychopathology
Type: Doctoral Thesis
Language: en
NBN: urn:nbn:it:units-8927
Appears in Collections:Scienze storiche, filosofiche, pedagogiche e psicologiche

Files in This Item:
File Description SizeFormat
michelin_phd.pdftesi di dottorato2.46 MBAdobe PDFThumbnail
Show full item record

CORE Recommender

Page view(s)

checked on Jun 1, 2019


checked on Jun 1, 2019

Google ScholarTM


Items in DSpace are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved, unless otherwise indicated.