Moral reasoning and judgment about ending life: Influences of age, gender, and social class
AuthorAnstee, Jaime L. K.
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The current research used a social-psychological approach to explore within-culture differences of age, gender, and social class influences on moral reasoning and judgment about ending life. The current study used Shweder's communication theory of morality to frame an inquiry into moral reasoning and judgment about end of life decisions. Unlike traditional harm-avoidance approaches to understanding morality, Shweder's theory considers three universal ethics that he argues underlie moral reasoning and judgment - autonomy, community, and divinity. Unlike previous inquiries into moral reasoning and judgment about ethical dilemmas, the current study did not assume any particular suicide act is simply and universally morally wrong. One-hundred and ninety-five (128 women, 67 men), community-dwelling adults ages 50-80 completed an online survey of moral judgment and reasoning for four different suicide scenarios: Physician-assisted Suicide, Suicide, Active Euthanasia, and Mercy Killing. For moral judgment, participants judged the extent to which each of the suicide acts was morally right and morally wrong; for moral reasoning, participants indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with each of the three ethic-based reasons that each type of suicide was morally right and morally wrong. Multinomial logistic regression was used to examine the relationships between age, sex, and education and moral judgment as well as moral reasoning. There were a number of significant effects associated with direct moral judgments. The older participants were, the more their judgments were that the different suicide types were morally right and less that it was morally wrong. Men rated suicide as morally right to a greater extent than women. Participants judged the suicide scenarios to be more morally right than morally wrong in all cases except for Active Euthanasia. Lastly, Active Euthanasia was judged as less morally right and more morally wrong than any of the other suicide types. There were also a number of relationships between participant age, gender, and social class in their moral reasoning. For men, older age was associated with more agreement with reasons that the different types of suicide were morally right and more disagreement with why they were morally wrong. Women agreed with autonomy- and divinity- based reasons that the different types of suicide were morally right and wrong more than men. Women also agreed more with reasons the different types of suicide were morally wrong than men. Higher education was associated with more agreement with reasons that Mercy Killing, Physician-assisted Suicide, and Suicide were morally right. Lastly, participants agreed more with autonomy-based reasons that the different types of suicide were morally right and wrong than divinity- or community-based reasons overall. In addition to these results there were three unique findings in the current study that should be addressed by future research. First, participants demonstrated moral permissiveness for mercy killing, whereas previous studies have not examined the acceptability of mercy killing as a suicide type. Second, in their agreement with reasons that the different types of suicide were right or wrong, participants in the current study differentiated more along the dimension of right and wrong than they did between types of ethics. Further, participants discriminated more between ethic types along the morally right dimension than they did along the morally wrong dimension. Third, there was an interaction between age and sex in moral reasoning in which increased moral permissiveness and decreased moralizing about the different types of suicide were only demonstrated by the men in the sample, whereas both men and women demonstrated increased moral permissiveness and decreased moralizing about suicide in direct moral judgments. In the current study the application of Shweder's three ethics of moral reasoning did not distinguish any cultural differences within the sample; participants preferred reasoning based on an ethic of autonomy more than the other two ethic types. Implications for future research are discussed.