Ethics vs. greater good

Varying opinions from genders given about killing someone to prevent further deaths


MCT Campus

Hitler is responsible for the deaths of 17 million people, ranked number three as the deadliest dictator behind Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. But, is it right to kill someone to prevent further deaths? While men and women both considered the consequences of their decision and how many lives might be saved, females were more likely to let Hitler live, finding it harder to commit murder, even if doing so would save more lives in the end.

If you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Adolf Hitler before he could lead the Nazis?

Both men and women can see the benefits of committing this act, yet men are more likely to pull the trigger.

“Yes, I would kill Hitler. He was responsible for killing so many people. I would like to prevent all those deaths,” teacher Mr. Andrew Ovington said.

Researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing the answers that 6,100 people gave to various moral questions that involved committing harm for the greater good, including the question regarding Hitler.

According to EurekAlert!, the study also “looked at reactions to questions about torture, murder, abortion, lying, and animal research.”

One scenario imagined a group hiding from soldiers with a crying baby. Participants were asked whether they would smother the child to save the group or let the child live and be caught.

“There’s always going to be that thin line between doing what is morally right and doing what is for the greater good,” sophomore Danielle Pratt said.

Other questions asked included: Would they torture a terrorist to find the locations of explosives in a civilian town? Would they let their daughter work as a prostitute to feed their starving family?

When it comes to ethical dilemmas such as these, men were usually more willing to accept harmful actions for the sake of the greater good than women. Why is that?

Psychology graduate Rebecca Friesdorf, psychology fellow Paul Conway, and psychology professor Bertram Gawronski reanalyzed the results to look at gender differences in judgments about moral dilemmas.

They discovered that the difference in responses is caused by an emotional aversion to killing among females.

“Women seem to be more likely to have this negative, emotional, gut-level reaction to causing harm to people in dilemmas, to the one person, whereas men were less likely to express this strong emotional reaction to harm,” Friesdorf told NPR.

The reanalysis looked at two contrasting philosophical values relating to ethics: utilitarianism and deontology. Those who chose short-term harm for a long-term gain are utilitarian. They consider an action moral if it is for the good of the majority.

Deontologists are individuals who are unable to break moral principles for the securing of a more favorable outcome in the future. They feel that rules should be followed and that actions are more important than the consequences.

Females were found more likely to be deontologists and struggled with their decisions, but males were more likely to be utilitarian and could make the choice more quickly.

“Women seem to be feeling more equal levels of both emotion and cognition. They seem to be experiencing similar levels of both, so it’s more difficult for them to make their choice,” Friesdorf said.

However, both men and women have similar levels of rational thinking about the consequences of any harmful action.

“The findings are in line with previous research showing that women are more empathetic to the feelings of other people than men, whereas gender differences in cognitive abilities tend to be small or nonexistent,” Friesdorf said.

Although the scenarios used in the study may seem far-fetched, like deciding whether or not to kill Hitler, people encounter less dramatic variations of them in their every-day life.

An example is that of a manager that needs to make an employment decision that would balance the future of a worker against the future of the company.

The implications from the study’s results may also be used to help women and men make the right decisions at a given time.