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When Moral Intuitions Are Immune to the Law: A Case Study of Euthanasia and the Act-Omission Distinction in The Netherlands

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Legal scholars and philosophers have long debated the moral standing of the act-omission distinction, with some favoring the view that actions ought to be considered as morally different from omissions, while others disagree. Several empirical studies suggest that people judge actions that cause harm as worse than omissions that cause the same harm with the implication that our folk psychology commonly perceives this distinction as morally significant. Here we explore the robustness of people's moral intuitions, and in particular, whether the omission bias can be eliminated in the face of explicit and familiar laws that take away the moral standing of the distinction between actions and omissions. We show that although Dutch law allows both active and passive euthanasia, and although our Dutch participants were well aware of this law and supported it, they nonetheless showed a robust omission bias across a wide range of moral dilemmas. We conclude by discussing the relationship between our folk moral intuitions and explicit moral rules that are handed down by law and religion.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; 2: Forensic Psychiatric Centre, De Rooyse Wissel, Oostrum, The Netherlands, Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands; 3: Forensic Psychiatric Centre, De Rooyse Wissel, Oostrum, The Netherlands


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