Moral cognition: An interdisciplinary investigation of judgment versus action
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In the past, experiments on human morality have predominantly utilised theoretical moral dilemmas to shed light on the nature of moral judgment. However, little attention has been given to determining how these judgments might translate into moral actions. In this thesis, I utilised novel and state-of-the-art Virtual Reality environments and combined approaches from social psychology, experimental philosophy, computer science, robotics, and speculative design. Over the course of six experiments with more than 200 participants, simulated moral actions made in Virtual Reality were found to be dissociated from moral judgments made in conventional paradigms. The results suggest that moral judgment and action may be driven by distinct mechanisms. The association between personality traits and moral judgments versus actions, was also investigated. In two experiments, psychopathic and associated traits predicted moral actions and the power with which these were simulated, but failed to predict moral judgments. With research suggesting a mediating role for empathy in this relationship, two further experiments examined empathic and affective processing in moral judgment versus action. In the first of these, alcohol consumption successfully lowered affective empathy and arousal in virtual dilemmas, but moral judgment and action remained unaffected. In the second, an investigation of professionally trained paramedics and fire service incident commanders, revealed distinct differences in empathic and related personality traits, reduced emotional arousal, and less regret following moral action. Taken together, this research suggests that novel virtual technologies can provide insights into self-referent actions, which sit in contrast to judgments motivated by social norms. Ethically, incorporating Virtual Reality in investigations of morality of harm offers a balanced approach; protecting participant wellbeing while increasing the ecological validity of moral investigations. The roles of personality traits and associated emotional processes in moral judgment and action remain multifaceted and as such, I outline the necessity of considering both the characteristics of the decision-maker and the context in which the decision is undertaken, within an interactionist model of morality.