Beta adrenergic blockade reduces utilitarian judgement

Biological Psychology 92 (2):323-328 (2013)
Abstract
Noradrenergic pathways are involved in mediating the central and peripheral effects of physiological arousal. The aim of the present study was to investigate the role of noradrenergic transmission in moral decision-making. We studied the effects in healthy volunteers of propranolol (a noradrenergic beta-adrenoceptor antagonist) on moral judgement in a set of moral dilemmas pitting utilitarian outcomes (e.g., saving five lives) against highly aversive harmful actions (e.g., killing an innocent person) in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel group design. Propranolol (40 mg orally) significantly reduced heart rate, but had no effect on self-reported mood. Importantly, propranolol made participants more likely to judge harmful actions as morally unacceptable, but only in dilemmas where harms were ‘up close and personal’. In addition, longer response times for such personal dilemmas were only found for the placebo group. Finally, judgments in personal dilemmas by the propranolol group were more decisive. These findings indicate that noradrenergic pathways play a role in responses to moral dilemmas, in line with recent work implicating emotion in moral decision-making. However, contrary to current theorising, these findings also suggest that aversion to harming is not driven by emotional arousal. Our findings are also of significant practical interest given that propranolol is a widely used drug in different settings, and is currently being considered as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in military and rescue service personnel.
Keywords Moral judgment  Utilitarian judgment  Moral dilemmas  Neuroscience of ethics  Emotion
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