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[Post by Ryan McManus]

Would you kill one person to save five? Does your answer tell us anything substantive about human psychology? What do responses to the trolley problem have to do with popularity? A series of new studies from a team of researchers at Oxford and Cornell University shed light on what intuitive responses to moral dilemmas can tell us about our willingness to trust one another.

Jim AC Everett, Molly Crockett (both of the University of Oxford), and David Pizarro (of Cornell University) administered several sacrificial moral dilemmas to more than 2,400 participants. According to the researchers, your answer to these dilemmas can tell us something about how trustworthy you may be perceived to be. So, what would your answer be? Would you kill one to save five?

 If you answer “no, it’s wrong to kill someone regardless of the consequences,” your intuitions match normative theories based on an approach called “deontology.” Deontologists are concerned with moral rules, duties, and basic rights. This does not mean that deontologists are never sensitive to consequences, but that they generally follow rule-based moral codes. Consequentialists, on the other hand, believe that the correct answer is one that maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number of people. For example, someone following a consequentialist theory of morality would likely believe killing one to save five to be the morally correct option, because the death of the one would not outweigh the death of the five. This sort of cost-benefit analysis is extremely pervasive in consequentialist moral theories. These two branches of normative ethics are often pitted against one another in sacrificial moral dilemmas, as in the classic trolley cases.


In one classic trolley scenario, the footbridge case, you are asked if it would be morally right to push a fat man off of the bridge to stop the trolley from killing five workmen (assuming the fat man would actually stop the trolley). In this scenario, most people believe it would be wrong. Everett, Crockett, and Pizarro claim that in some ways, this makes sense. If we were to imagine a loved one or dear friend making a cost-benefit analysis regarding the decision to sacrifice us, we would likely be bewildered, maybe even angry or sick. Why, though? The authors hypothesized, contrary to arguments explaining away deontological responses as irrational emotions, that people may generally view others as more trustworthy if those others display an adherence to rule-based morality. This could mean that throughout evolutionary history, people who stuck to moral rules were perceived as better social partners.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers showed that people who answered the “trolley problems” in a deontological fashion were considered more trustworthy than their consequentialist counterparts. Participants also engaged in a trust game, in which they could lay money on the line, entrusting a potential social partner to return the money. In general, people distributed more money to social partners whose answers were considered deontological rather than consequentialist – they also were more confident in their money being returned if their partner was not willing to sacrifice one to save five. The authors also demonstrated that the decision to make the sacrifice was not the only thing that mattered; it also mattered how the decision was made. If someone made a consequentialist decision, but claimed that it was hard to decide, he or she was trusted more than someone who took a consequentialist approach with ease.

So what do the authors make of their results? Here is an excerpt from the end of the manuscript:

“Our work offers a new perspective on the possibility of bridging normative ethical theories with empirical findings in moral psychology. Research on moral judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas has often tried to explain or justify these judgments through the lenses of ethical theories such as Utilitarianism or a simplified categorical based Kantian deontology.  Yet this endeavor has met limited success, as laypeople’s’ judgments about endorsing or rejecting the sacrifice of one to save others bear little resemblance to the demands of these ethical theories. Contra Utilitarianism, commonsense morality does not have the sole aim of maximizing aggregate welfare, and  contra very simplified forms of categorical-based Kantian ethics does not treat  moral rules as absolutely binding. Rather, commonsense morality appears to be pluralist, consisting of a variety of specific fairness and harm-based principles, where (like on some contractualist theories) sometimes it is permissible to overrule some specific deontic principle if following it would lead to great harm. One interesting implication of our work, therefore, is that researchers exploring how folk moral judgments align with normative ethical theories could usefully consider moral contractualism. To whit: it is unlikely that commonsense intuitions will have a direct mapping onto the philosophical principles of moral contractualism or neo-Kantian ethical theories; but at the very least it seems describing commonsense morality along such contractualist-deontological principles will be less wrong. Our evolved commonsense morality is not utilitarian and not deontological in a simple Kantian-categorical sense, but with its focus on justice and fairness, it does share important features with contractualist moral theories. Moral contractualism, in addition to aligning well with the moral judgments people typically make, may also help to inform why we make these judgments, and under what conditions these judgments can be defended from a normative standpoint and we look forward to future empirical and theoretical work exploring this.”

If you’re interested in reading more about this study’s authors, here are their websites:

Jim AC Everett – ; Molly Crockett – ; David Pizarro –

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