No Utilitarians in a Pandemic? Shifts in Moral Reasoning during the COVID-19 Global Health Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic poses many real-world moral dilemmas, which can pit the needs and rights of the many against the needs and rights of the few. We investigated the influence of this contemporary global crisis on moral judgments in older adults, who are at greatest personal risk from the pandemic. We hypothesized that during this pandemic, individuals would give fewer utilitarian responses to hypothetical dilemmas, accompanied by higher levels of confidence and emotion elicitation. Our pre-registered analysis (https://osf.io/g2wtp) involved two waves of data collection, before (2014) and during (2020) the COVID-19 pandemic, regarding three categories of moral dilemmas (personal rights, agent-centered permissions, and special obligations). While utilitarian responses considered across all categories of dilemma did not differ, participants during the 2020 wave gave fewer utilitarian responses to dilemmas involving personal rights; that is, they were less willing to violate the personal rights of others to produce the best overall outcomes.
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