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The Folk are Not Utilitarians October 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care, Uncategorized.

Via Ben Goldacre:

Loran Nordgren and Mary McDonnell wanted to see whether our perception of the severity of a crime was affected by the number of people affected. 60 students were given a vignette to read about a case of fraud, where either 3 people or 30 people were defrauded by a financial advisor, but all the other information in the story was kept the same.

In an ideal world, you’d imagine that someone who harmed more people would deserve a harsher treatment. Participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime, and recommend a punishment: even though fewer people were affected, participants who read the story with only 3 victims rated the crime as more serious than those who read the exact same story, but with 30 victims.

And more than that, they acted on this view: out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who heard the 3 victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30 victim people. Another study, where a food processing company knowingly poisoned its customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results. […]

[T]hey then go on to examine the actual sentences given in a representative sample of 136 real world court cases, to people who were found guilty of exactly these kinds of crimes, but with different numbers of victims, to see what impact the victim-count had.

The results were extremely depressing. These were cases where people from corporations had been found guilty of negligently exposing members of the public to toxic substances such as asbestos, lead paint, or toxic mould, and their victims had all suffered significantly. They were all from 2000 to 2009, they were all jury trials, and the researchers’ hypothesis was correct: people who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm smaller number of people. Juries punish people less harshly when they harm more people.

I’m not sure what explains this result. Perhaps a crime against a small number suggests an intention to harm, whereas a crime against many is perceived more like negligence.

But I think it is more likely that we find it easier to empathize with one or two people than empathize with a large group.

This is what the authors suggest. We feel more sympathy toward identifiable individuals than for abstract individuals. In fact subjects gave richer descriptions of the victims in the small number cases; and in the large number cases, giving subjects a photo of the victims seemed to eliminate the effect.

This helps to confirm that if, as moral theorists, we are interested in describing human nature, the ethics of care gives us a better handle on human motivation than impartialist theories like utilitarianism or deontology.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - October 6, 2010

Apparently a well-known psychological phenomenon. “One death is a tragedy—a million deaths is a statistic.” This quote has been attributed to Stalin, but apparently it was the author Kurt Tucholsky who came up with the idea first, as a joke.
Ask Edward O. Wilson, and he will probably say it is attributable to human origins in family groups consisting of fewer than 100 individuals. Small numbers of people are what we can handle, emotionally. But let’s not give up on the folks’ capacity for rational thinking…

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