In an innovative empirical study into human moral psychology, researchers from Oxford and Cornell universities have found that people who hold to moral absolutes in certain tricky ethical situations are more popular and trusted among their peers than over those who engage in a situational analysis of dilemmas.
Jim A.C. Everett, Oxford PhD student and Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University, worked with Molly Crockett from Oxford and David Pizarro from Cornell University to test whether our default reliance on moral rules has an evolutionary basis.
The researchers asked participants of their study to consider several variations of moral dilemmas where one must decide whether or not to sacrifice an innocent person in order to save the lives of many others.
They then asked each participant a question about the others who took place in the study: did they prefer as social partners those who took a rule-based approach, or those who made cost/benefit moral judgements.
“Across 9 experiments, with more than 2,400 participants, we found that people who took an absolute approach to the dilemmas (refusing to kill an innocent person, even when this maximized the greater good) were seen as more trustworthy than those who advocated a more flexible, consequentialist approach”, said senior author Dr. Molly Crockett.
When asked to entrust another person with a sum of money, participants handed over more money, and were more confident of getting it back, when dealing with someone who refused to sacrifice one to save many, the researchers found.
However, simply deciding whether or not to sacrifice an innocent person was not the only thing that mattered: how the choice was made was crucial.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.