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Cognition. 2006 Jul;100(3):530-42. Epub 2005 Sep 12.

Moral dilemmas and moral rules.

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  • 1Department of Philosophy, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.


Recent work shows an important asymmetry in lay intuitions about moral dilemmas. Most people think it is permissible to divert a train so that it will kill one innocent person instead of five, but most people think that it is not permissible to push a stranger in front of a train to save five innocents. We argue that recent emotion-based explanations of this asymmetry have neglected the contribution that rules make to reasoning about moral dilemmas. In two experiments, we find that participants show a parallel asymmetry about versions of the dilemmas that have minimized emotional force. In a third experiment, we find that people distinguish between whether an action violates a moral rule and whether it is, all things considered, wrong. We propose that judgments of whether an action is wrong, all things considered, implicate a complex set of psychological processes, including representations of rules, emotional responses, and assessments of costs and benefits.

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