The Greater Good

How morality is different—and the same—across cultures.

By Devon Frye, published April 29, 2020 - last reviewed on May 5, 2020

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Every culture has rules about right and wrong. While some are fairly universal (“thou shalt not kill”), others are more reflective of local values. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attempted to quantify such cultural variations by examining worldwide responses to a classic moral psychology dilemma: the trolley problem.

Researchers led by Edmond Awad of the University of Exeter asked 70,000 people from 42 countries several versions of a hypothetical scenario. In two similar versions, participants were told they could flip a switch to send a speeding trolley into one person, saving five others as a result. In a third scenario, they would have to push one person in front of the trolley to spare the five. Globally, respondents tended to say that flipping the switch was more morally acceptable than pushing someone.

But the percentage who actually endorsed the sacrifice in each scenario varied widely around the world. Low relational mobility—reduced freedom to choose friends or partners or move easily between social groups—most strongly predicted a greater tendency to reject the sacrifice. “People may worry they’ll be perceived as ‘monsters’ if they’re willing to sacrifice one person for the greater good,” Awad hypothesizes. “This is more costly when relationships aren’t easily replaceable.”