You know the trolley problems, of course. An out-of-control trolley is headed toward five people it will kill if nothing is done. You can flip a switch and send it to a side track where it will kill one different person instead. Should you flip the switch? What if, instead of flipping a switch, the only way to save the five is to push someone into the path of the trolley, killing that one person?
In evaluating this scenario, does it matter if the person standing near the switch with the life-and-death decision to make is "John" as opposed to "you"? Nadelhoffer & Feltz presented the switch version of the trolley problem to undergraduates from Florida State University. Forty-three saw the problem with "you" as the actor; 65% of the them said it was permissible to throw the switch. Forty-two saw the problem with "John" as the actor; 90% of them said it was permissible to throw the switch, a statistically significant difference.
Tobia, Buckwalter & Stich followed up, presenting a famous moral dilemma from Bernard Williams in which someone can save a group of innocent villagers from a gunman by choosing personally to shoot one of the villagers. Forty undergraduates were presented this scenario. When "you" were given the chance to shoot one villager to save the rest, 19% of said it was morally obligatory to do so; when "Jim" was given the chance, 53% said it was obligatory (again statistically significant).
However, Tobia and colleagues also gave the scenario to 62 professional philosophers and found the opposite effect: 9% of philosophers found it obligatory for "Jim" and 36% found it obligatory for "you". They also presented a trolley-switching case to 49 professional philosophers. Again, the effect was in the opposite direction from that observed among undergraduates: 89% of philosophers said it was permissible to flip the switch in the second-person condition vs. 64% in the third-person condition.
Fiery Cushman and I have some unpublished data on this that I thought I'd throw into the mix, since our results are a bit different from those of Tobia and colleagues. We collected these data for our 2012 paper on order effects in philosophers' and non-philosophers' judgments about moral scenarios. Most of the scenarios were presented third-person, but as we mention in the published paper, some scenarios also had second-person variants. We didn't find large effects, and the paper was already very complicated, so we didn't detail the second-person/third-person differences.
In that experiment, we had four scenarios that differed 2nd person vs. 3rd person. However, they differed not in whether the actor was described as "you", but rather in whether the victim was.
One scenario was a version of Williams' hostage scenario. "Nancy" and other villagers are captured by a warlord. Nancy is given the choice of shooting "you" (2nd person variant) or "a fellow hostage" (3rd person variant) to save the captured villagers. Respondents rated Nancy's "shooting you" or "shooting a fellow hostage" on a 7-point scale from "extremely morally good" (1) through "extremely morally bad" (7), with "morally neutral" in the middle (4). We had three groups of respondents: 324 professional philosophers (MA or PhD in philosophy, mostly recruited via email to Leiter-ranked philosophy departments), 753 non-philosopher academics (Master's or PhD not in philosophy, mostly recruited via email to comparison departments at the same universities), and 1389 non-academics (a convenience sample of others who happened upon the test site).
We found non-philosophers a bit more likely to rate Nancy's shooting one to save the others toward the "morally good" side of the scale if the victim was "you", but philosophers showed only a small, non-significant trend on our 7-point scale (using t-tests):
Non-academics: 3.6 (2nd person victim) vs. 4.1 (3rd person victim) (p < .001).Academic non-philosophers: 4.1 vs. 4.5 (p = .001).Philosophers: 3.9 vs. 4.0 (p = .60).
We found similar results in a scenario in which a captain of a military submarine can shoot "you" (2nd person) or shoot another "crew member" (3rd person) to save the vessel:
Non-academics: 2.7 vs. 3.1 (p < .001).Academic non-philosophers: 2.9 vs. 3.2 (p = .050).Philosophers: 2.9 vs. 2.8 (p = .60).
We also presented a scenario pair in which you and other passengers have fled a sinking ship. You will drown without a life vest. In one version, someone snatches a vest away from you. In another version, someone declines to put himself at risk by giving you his vest. The results:
Snatching the vest:
Non-academics: 5.6 (2nd person victim) vs. 5.8 (3rd person victim) (p = .052). Academic non-philosophers: 5.7 vs. 6.0 (p = .002). Philosophers: 5.8 vs. 5.7 (p = .58).Not giving up the vest:
Non-academics: 4.8 vs. 4.7 (p = .12). Academic non-philosophers: 4.7 vs. 4.8 (p = .82). Philosophers: 4.6 vs. 4.4 (p = .26)In sum: The effects were small and inconsistent, but there was a general tendency for non-philosophers to rate harm to themselves as morally better than harm to other people -- a tendency not evident among philosopher respondents.
Personally, I'm not inclined to make much of this, since I don't think people are generally in fact more morally lenient in judging harms to themselves than in judging harms to other people. My guess is that these results reflect a small "impression management" or socially desirable responding bias among the non-philosophers that we don't see among the philosophers, who might be more inclined to hear "you" pretty abstractly and impersonally when presented with familiar scenarios of this type.
In an earlier unpublished version of this study, we also tried varying 2nd and 3rd person presentation of the actor who is faced with the choice, including in standard trolley type and hostage type cases of the sort described in Nadelhoffer & Feltz and Tobia, Buckwalter & Stich. Due to a programming error, we couldn't use the data and can't fully interpret it, but our general finding was that the effect was very subtle, and mostly non-detectable even with hundreds of participants (394 philosophers and even more in the other groups). That's why we shifted to trying out 2nd vs. 3rd person variation in the victim role -- maybe it would be a larger effect, we thought.
So, for example, merging the push and switch versions of the trolley scenarios, we found the following ratings on our 7-point scale:
Non-academics: 3.8 (2nd person actor) vs. 3.9 (3rd person actor) (p = .27). Academic non-philosophers: 3.9 vs. 3.8 (p = .19). Philosophers: 3.6 vs. 3.9 (p = .07)And in a shoot-the-villager type scenario, the results were:
Non-academics: 4.3 vs. 4.3 (p = .46). Academic non-philosophers: 4.6 vs. 4.5 (p = .18). Philosophers: 3.9 vs. 4.2 (p = .14)However, in the life vest cases we did seem to see a small effect.
Snatching the vest:
Non-academics: 6.0 vs. 5.9 (p = .053). Academic non-philosophers: 6.1 vs. 5.9 (p = .03). Philosophers: 5.8 vs. 5.8 (p = .94)Not giving up the vest:
Non-academics: 4.9 vs. 4.7 (p = .008). Academic non-philosophers: 4.8 vs. 4.7 (p = .08). Philosophers: 4.7 vs. 4.4 (p = .12)Thus, overall, we found some confirmation of the tendency for non-philosophers to rate actions a little more harshly in 2nd person than in 3rd person presentations, but the effect was small and inconsistent; and we did not find a tendency for philosophers to go in the opposite direction.
We're not sure why we found much smaller effects here than have others. Among the possibilities: Our scenarios were worded somewhat differently. Our response scale (the 1-7 scale from "extremely morally good" to "extremely morally bad") was set up differently. Our participants were recruited differently.