Let Someone Kill An Innocent Man to Protect Five Others? Your Morals Will Help You Decide

I know I can sometimes seem holier-than-thou.  My family thinks I'm self-righteous but I just consider it moral.  I've even gone so far as to call the cops when I saw a young woman pack in a handicapped space, then hop out and run in to get her hair cut.  (She got a ticket.)

Now a new study is saying that moral sticklers are actually seen as more trust-worthy, according to newswise.com.

The website gives as an example a person who agrees to kill one innocent person to save the lives of five others. 

New research suggests people perceive those who hold fast to these moral rules – even when breaking them might lead to better overall consequences – as more trustworthy and valued social partners than those who would be willing to override the rules for the sake of the greater good.

 Thankfully, I've never had to make that choice.  But in the study, which involved a series of experiments in which participants were given information about how another person responded to a hypothetical moral dilemma. These dilemmas were designed to pit two styles of moral thinking against each other: one that says the morally right decision is whichever one brings about the best overall consequences, versus one that says certain actions are wrong despite their consequences.

The researchers found that people who ignored the consequences and stuck to the rules – refusing to kill the innocent person even if it brought about a greater good – were judged to be more trustworthy than those who were willing to overlook the rules because of the positive consequences. The study participants also treated the rule-followers differently: when playing an economic game designed to assess trust, in which participants stand to benefit financially from giving up some of their own money to the other player as long as the other player gives it back; participants handed over more money to the rule-followers and were more confident that they would get it back in return.

So where does that leave me?  I'm not sure.  Sometimes I even get on my own nerves at how morally outraged I become when people turn without signaling or speed up when they're coming from the other direction to prevent me from making a left turn.  I know I'm not the traffic police but it makes me feel good, even if just for a second, to think they are in the wrong, and I, the right (or the left, as the case may be).

Also in the experiments, the researchers found that those who chose to sacrifice someone for the greater good were judged less harshly if the decision seemed to be difficult for them. “If a person concluded too easily that an innocent person should be thrown to their death for the greater good, our participants viewed them a bit more suspiciously,” they said.

Researchers added that it wasn’t always the case that those who refused to kill an innocent person for the sake of greater overall consequences were trusted more. If the moral dilemma described the person who might be sacrificed as expressing a specific desire to live or a willingness to die, people favored individuals who respected those wishes, even if that involved killing.

"This helps explain why we appear to like people who stick to these intuitive moral rules – not because they are sticklers for the letter of the law, but because the rules themselves tend to emphasize the absolute importance of respecting the wishes and desires of others," said David Pizarro, associate professor of psychology at Cornell University.


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