Utilitarian Reasoning About Moral Problems of the COVID-19 Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised complex moral dilemmas such as deciding how to assign scarce medical resources, or whether it is acceptable to share sensitive private data to effectively trace the virus. Here, we aimed at unfolding the reasoning processes underlying people’s responses to these and other contemporary moral problems. We report data from a large-scale study (N=15,420) across 10 countries where the impact of the pandemic has been highly dissimilar. A dimensionality analysis of moral preferences revealed that two principal components explained most of the variance in the data. The first dimension is consistent with a concern about human life expectancy and the second dimension suggests an interest in equitable public health. Consistent with the predictions of a bi-dimensional theory of moral reasoning, we found that each of these two dimensions correlated with different aspects of utilitarian thinking. While maximizing human life expectancy correlated with a permissive attitude towards instrumental harm, focusing on equitable public health was associated with an impartial concern for the greater good. The data also suggests that, above and beyond the effects given by individual differences in moral, personality, and demographic variables, country-level variations in the severity of the pandemic modulated the projection onto both dimensions. These results suggest that the utilitarian prioritization of public health over other aspects of wellbeing is shaped by the intensity of the crisis.
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