In the present study, Moral Impersonal (MI) dilemmas were those that required the volunteers to judge the appropriateness of various non-personal moral violations in scenarios in which the respondent is presented with a solution to the dilemma that would benefit a larger group by merely deflecting an existing threat of serious bodily harm or death onto another individual or smaller group. In this form of dilemma, the individual performing the action does not directly or personally inflict harm on another, but the course of action described will indirectly bring about serious harm to one party through deflection of an existing threat away from another party.
Moral Personal (MP) dilemmas were similar to the MI dilemmas, except that the moral violation was of a more personal nature in that the course of action initiated by the respondent in the MP dilemmas would directly inflict serious bodily harm or death to a specific identifiable individual in order to reduce the impact of an external threat to another party. The key difference between these 2 types of dilemmas is the degree of personal involvement in producing the harmful consequences; in the MP scenarios, the actor is the “author” of the outcome and directly inflicts the harm, whereas in the MI scenarios the actor merely “edits” the inevitable harm by redirecting an already existing source of harm onto a different victim.
You are the late-night watchman in a hospital. Due to an accident in the building next door, there are deadly fumes rising up through the hospital's ventilation system. In a certain room of the hospital are three patients. In another room there is a single patient. If you do nothing the fumes will rise up into the room containing the three patients and cause their deaths.
The only way to avoid the deaths of these patients is to hit a certain switch, which will cause the fumes to bypass the room containing the three patients. As a result of doing this the fumes will enter the room containing the single patient, causing his death.
Is it appropriate for you to hit the switch in order to avoid the deaths of the three patients?
A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large.
The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.
Is it appropriate for you to push the stranger on to the tracks in order to save the five workmen?
It is a good question whether there is a morally significant difference between these two kinds of cases. It is nevertheless plausible that there is a significant psychological difference between reactions to the two kinds of scenarios, precisely because of the differing degree of direct personal involvement involved, particularly regarding the causing of a harm -- albeit one which might prevent another, greater, harm.
So what effects does sleep deprivation have on the way you answer this sort of question? It's complicated, as you might expect. The headline results are:
1. Sleep deprivation increases the decision-making time for Moral-Personal scenarios relative to Moral-Impersonal and Non-moral scenarios.
2. In general terms, sleep-deprivation tends to increase the likelihood of a participant answering that a proposed course of action (in both types of case) is appropriate.
The researchers, probably rightly, avoid making claims about which course of action for a given scenario is 'correct', so there is no sense in asking whether these results suggest that there is a 'moral decline' associated with the absence of sleep. But, regardless of which course of action is right, it seems to me that since the action suggested, both in the Moral-Impersonal and Moral-Personal cases, tends to be one which is likely either (i) to foster the agent's own interests at the expense of someone else or (ii) to foster the interests of a larger group at the cost of a smaller group or an individual, it does seem that lack of sleep tends to promote an acceptance of broadly consequentialist reasoning (of either egoist or a more agent-neutral kind).
Which raises a further good question: did Bentham and Mill just not get enough sleep?