ICBioethics Blog 

Decision Models Affect Personal Ethics

Written by:  Ryan Pferdehirt

Moral/ethical dilemmas demand complex decision-making processes that we filter through our ethical systems. Two readily recognized ethical systems greatly impact ethical judgments: consequentialism and deontological ethics. Consequentialism deems actions are ethical/unethical depending on outcomes of the action. Conversely, deontology judges actions based on absolute rules, regardless of consequences.

Neuroscience feels it may hold a clue to explaining how and what behaviors we deem right or wrong. Molly J. Crockett’s study (2013) discussed how individuals’ ethical judgments may be integrated via the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), reveal neurological thinking patterns, and direct their actions: model-based (e.g., consequentialism) or model-free (e.g., deontology).

Crockett’s discussion included this classic example: imagine a trolley heading towards five people who will die if it continues. You could push a nearby man onto the tracks to stop the train, killing one, but saving five lives. Is that ethical? A model-free evaluation leads to a deontological judgment; it would see the action of pushing the man as unethical. A model-based evaluation emphasizes the five lives saved, deeming the push ethical, in line with consequentialism.

Hmmm . . . and what if you didn’t have to touch the man – just flip a switch for the same results?

Although obviously an oversimplification of complex decision-making processes, as well as of how ethical/unethical behaviors are activated (Crockett acknowledges more sophisticated, system interaction), this raises an interesting question:

In this scenario, what might your neurobiology and personal ethics system prompt you to do?

Mitch GennusoComment