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How Do You Make Morally Difficult Decisions?

Deal with choices that involve moral dimensions.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When you are faced with a decision that has an ethical component, how do you deal with it? A lot of work done over the past few decades is converging on the idea that you start by figuring out what kind of choice you’re making. That is, are you making an ethical choice based on moral dimensions or are you making a choice based on tradeoffs, pros and cons, and economics?

Suppose that you were an executive running a factory. A new kind of treatment system comes on the market that would reduce the pollution from the smokestacks by 30%, but it would cost $250,000 to outfit the plant. Do you install the system? One aspect of answering that question involves the ethical stance of the company. Are you the kind of firm that would pollute more than necessary given the current technology? A second aspect of answering that question is based on the typical tradeoffs involved in most decisions. Is the cost of the devices worth the benefit?

A wonderful paper by Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly in 1999 found that you could shift whether people in business used an ethical or an economic frame for choices like this based on the penalties associated with engaging in a behavior. In the study, business leaders were very likely to install pollution reduction devices if there was a large fine for not doing it. Interestingly, they were also likely to do it if there was no fine at all. In the first case, the significant fine makes installing the devices a good business decision. In the second case, it was a moral decision—leaders were deciding whether they were the kind of company that would pollute when they didn’t have to.

A striking finding in these studies was that if there was only a small fine, then leaders decided against installing the devices. The fine made leaders think of it as a business decision, and it was cheaper to pay the fine than to spend the money to install the device.

When people have a moral value that they don’t want to treat as a business decision and make tradeoffs, that is called a protected value. Rather than making tradeoffs, people react with frustration or outrage when asked to make a choice that would go against a protected value.

A clever set of studies by Jonathan Berman and Daniella Kupor in the October 2020 issue of Psychological Science demonstrated this difference. They point out that harming other people is a protected value, and so when people are given a choice between options where one allows people to avoid harming anyone while another might save several people but would require causing harm, then people opt to avoid harm. But, if both options require harming someone, then people choose the option that saves the most people, even if it involves harming more people.

For example, in one study involving vignettes, some people chose between removing support for a dying patient to save money to support cancer research or not removing that support. In that condition, about 70% of people opted not to remove the support for the dying patient. In a second condition, participants chose between removing support for one patient to save a small amount of money for cancer research or removing support for two patients to save a large amount of money. In this case, about 71% opted to remove support for two patients rather than one. That is, the first case was treated as a moral decision, while the second was treated as a tradeoff.

The researchers replicated this finding several times in the paper with different situations (including a real choice setting involving donations to political parties). In each case, people treated situations in which one option allowed people to avoid harm differently from those situations in which harm was inevitable.

At one level, it might seem strange that people are not consistent in their actions. For example, they could choose to focus only on minimizing harm to others. But protected values provide a way to ease difficult decisions to avoid a potential slippery slope in which it becomes ever easier to give up on an important long-term outcome for what is best in the short-term. At the same time, there are specific circumstances in which choices require working through the lesser of two evils. And in those cases, it is sometimes necessary to weigh the pros and cons of each.

Ultimately, though, when you have an important moral value, it is important for you to take stock of how you are doing across the entire set of choices you make to help you stay true to that value. It is tempting to take each decision you face on a case by case basis. But it is valuable to look across several decisions you have made to ensure you are happy with the overall impact


Tenbrunsel, A.E., & Messick, D.M. (1999). Sanctioning Systems, Decision Frames, and Cooperation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(4), 684-707.

Baron, J. & Spranca, M. (1997) Protected Values. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 70(1), 1-16.

Berman, J.Z., & Kupor, D. (2020). Moral choice when harming is unavoidable. Psychological Science, 31(10), 1294-1301.

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