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Would You Sacrifice One for the Survival of Many?

New research on how situational factors shape moral judgments.

Key points

  • When facing a moral dilemma, people are likely to be guided by one of two major philosophies.
  • A utilitarian philosophy deems behavior moral if it maximizes the well-being of the many.
  • A deontological philosophy judges an action as moral or immoral regardless of the larger context.
  • But new research suggests that morality may not be so easy to determine after all.

Moral dilemmas can be portrayed as decisions between two main conflicting moral principles: utilitarian and deontological. Utilitarian philosophies hold that an action is morally acceptable if it maximizes the well-being of the greatest number of people. On the other hand, deontological philosophies evaluate the morality of the action based on the intrinsic nature of the action.

Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

An example of these moral principles is illustrated by the trolley dilemma: An empty, runaway trolley is speeding down a set of tracks toward five railway workmen. There is also a set of tracks branching off to the right of the main tracks with a single workman. It is possible to avoid the deaths of the five workmen if you pull a lever that will turn the trolley onto the side tracks. But doing this will also cause the trolley to collide with the single workman, causing his death. Would you pull the lever?

Utilitarianism would suggest that it is morally acceptable to pull the lever, as it would maximize the number of lives saved. However, a deontological decision-maker would argue that pulling the lever is morally unacceptable, as it would be murder.

In an alternative version of the dilemma, instead of pulling a lever to reroute the trolley, you would have to push a man off a footbridge in front of the trolley. This man will die but will stop the trolley because he is wearing a heavy enough backpack, and the five people in the way of the trolley will be saved. Note, you couldn’t have avoided the five deaths by jumping yourself because there is not enough time to remove the backpack. Would you push the man?

Roberto Nickson/ Unsplash
Source: Roberto Nickson/ Unsplash

A large cross-cultural collaborative network of researchers (including myself) called the Psychological Science Accelerator examined these moral dilemmas across 45 countries. The study “Situational factors shape moral judgments in the trolley dilemma in Eastern, Southern, and Western countries in a culturally diverse sample,” led by Bence Bagó and Balazs Aczel, was published in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior. The results, which were published this week, showed that when personal force was seen to be necessary to save more lives (as in the pushing scenario), people were less likely to favorably judge the outcome (i.e., saving more lives). In other words, people were less likely to judge sacrificing one person to save more people as morally acceptable when they had to use their personal force to kill the person. This effect was found across countries, providing evidence that the personal force effect is influenced by basic cognitive and emotional processes that are universal for humans.

These findings are important since the dilemma between utilitarian and deontological principles plays a prominent role in law and policy-making decisions, ranging from health budget allocations to the protocols of self-driving cars. The way people perceive or act on these moral rules can influence the policies that are accepted, and therefore, these findings provide necessary insights into which factors contribute to moral perceptions.