A few years ago, I read an article about the unfathomable lack of sleep that is structured into the curriculum of military schools; we’re talking 5-6 hours a night for young adults who still requires between 8.4-10 hrs a night. In this month’s journal SLEEP Swedish researchers have observed thatchronic sleep deprivation in military personnel affects moral judgments, in addition to what we already know: decreased reaction time, poor procedural decision making, increased risk taking, increased reliance on hypnotics (alcohol and sleep meds) and psychostimulants (cocaine, amphetamines). Even more shockingly, this chronic sleep deprivation most affected individuals who typically made sound moral decisions. As expected, chronic sleep deprivation had little affect on those individuals who were already lacking in moral fiber. The quality of one’s moral fiber was based from decision-based questionnaires in response to a presented scenario that modeled Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

ResearchBlogging.orgNo, they weren’t trivial moral decisions like this.

But rather in response to the following scenario:
A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

One typically argues the ethos of this situation by using one of these stages….
Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he would consequently be put in prison, which would mean he is a bad person. Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200, not how much the druggist wanted for it. Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.

Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would probably languish over a jail cell more than his wife’s death.

Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband. Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he tried to do everything he could without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.

Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal. Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.

Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.

Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

Personally, my decision would rely on universal human ethics. In relation to the research, what is most terrifying is the profound change in moral character in lieu of chronic sleep deprivation. If we remember our sophomore year history, the US has engaged in several immoral military acts in the past, such as the institution of American concentration camps, killing raids in Vietnam, and let’s not forget the numerous cases of sexual abuse and rape of women that occurs at these same military schools were chronic sleep restriction is expected. How responsible chronic sleep deprivation is for influencing these poor choices is unknown, but if each country’s military is chronically sleep deprived and making poor choices of moral fiber……..then if this study is universally true, then we have ourselves a global Armageddon.

Olav Kjellevold Olsen; Ståle Pallesen; Jarle Eid (2010). The Impact of Partial Sleep Deprivation on Moral Reasoning in Military Officers SLEEP, 33 (8), 1086-1090