The brain, and active and passive harm
Michael De Dora
Posted on December 15, 2011
Consider these two hypothetical situations:
1) A competitive figure skater loosens the skate blade of a rival to aid her chances of winning;
2) A competitive skater notices that her rival’s blade is loose and fails to warn anyone, which aids her chances of winning.
In both cases, the rival skater is seriously injured and loses. Whether due to the competitive skater’s action or a willful failure to act, the same amount of harm is done.
Many people differentiate between these two situations: in the first case, the skater created and enacted a deliberate plan to cause harm, whereas in the second case, she simply failed to prevent foreseeable harm. And surely, many people say, causing harm is worse than failing to prevent it.
Yet some people do equate these cases as equally wrong, which begs the question: why? According to new research, it might depend of the degree to which a person engages in conscious reasoning.
Said Brown University psychologist Fiery Cushman:
“What it looks like is when you see somebody actively harm another person that triggers a strong automatic response. You don’t have to think very deliberatively about it. You just perceive it as morally wrong. When a person allows harm that they could easily prevent, that actually requires more carefully controlled deliberative thinking [to view as wrong].”
“The people who are showing this distinction [that active harm is worse than passive] are actually the ones who show the least evidence of deliberative, careful, controlled thinking, whereas the people who show no difference between actions and omissions show the most evidence of careful deliberative controlled thinking.”
You can read the full story here.