Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Michael Pratt

Advisor Role

Thesis Supervisor


Some sex and empathy differences have been found in moral reasoning patterns in adults (e.g., Pratt, Golding, and Kerig, in press; Walker and DeVries, 1985). However, until recently the area of moral judgment was severely restricted by an exclusive focus on the measures of a few researchers such as Kohlberg (1969, 1976, 1981, 1984). Gilligan (1977, 1982) has been primarily responsible for the upsurge of interest and resultant diversification of measures in this area of individual differences. The present paper examined in detail how sex differences and level of empathy affect moral reasoning patterns in individuals between 18 and 25 years of age. Hypothetical dilemmas were rewritten to make them either more or less vivid, within three conditions: 1) Subjective, in which the original dilemma was rewritten to include engaging personal information about the dilemma characters; 2) Objective, in which the original dilemma was rewritten to include non-engaging statistical information; and, 3) Neutral, in which the original dilemma was not altered. Each dilemma was followed by bipolar adjective scales for each character in the dilemma, which assessed the empathy level of the subject for that character. Overall patterns of personel empathy were assessed using the Mehrabian-Epstein scale. Moral reasoning patterns were assessed through Pratt’s Information-Seeking Questionnaire (Pratt, Golding, Hunter, and Norris, in press), as well as by Pratt’s Judgment Questionnaire (Pratt, Golding, Hunter, and Sampson, 1986), and the Gilligan Personal Moral Dilemma Task (Gilligan, 1982). In addition, the type of hypothetical dilemmas was varied to assess whether there was a difference in response due to the structure of the dilemma. Four hypothetical dilemmas were used in the present study, two Kohlberg dilemmas (based on a justice framework) and two Eisenberg dilemmas (based on a pro-social framework). Empathy for the characters in the dilemmas was found to be the highest in the subjective condition, and lowest in the objective condition, as hypothesized. However, this effect of dilemma vividness was only true for individuals high in personal empathy; low empathy individuals demonstrated no difference in responding, regardless of condition. In terms of moral reasoning, the results of this study indicate that patterns of moral reasoning are related to individual differences in empathy. Personal empathy was the strongest predictor variable, and was mediated in part by character empathy. Sex differences were largely overshadowed by these individual differences in reported personal empathy for both dilemma types. Women did, however, request significantly more information overall than did men on the Information-Seeking questionnaire. Dilemma type also had an effect on moral reasoning patterns. Individuals, regardless of sex, requested more information and endorsed more judgment considerations for the Kohlberg dilemmas than for the Eisenberg dilemmas. Also, more rights information was sought and more normative/fairness considerations were endorsed for the Kohlberg dilemmas than for the Eisenberg dilemmas. It is suggested that future research focus on individual differences in personal empathy as a motivating factor in relation to the vividness effect, and also in relation to the Kohlberg stage levels of moral reasoning. Furthermore, hypothetical dilemma type should be taken into account in future studies involving the moral reasoning process.

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