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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2009 Oct;97(4):567-78. doi: 10.1037/a0015998.

Limits on legitimacy: moral and religious convictions as constraints on deference to authority.

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Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL, USA.


Various versions of legitimacy theory predict that a duty and obligation to obey legitimate authorities generally trumps people's personal moral and religious values. However, most research has assumed rather than measured the degree to which people have a moral or religious stake in the situations studied. This study tested compliance with and reactions to legitimate authorities in the context of a natural experiment that tracked public opinion before and after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case that challenged states' rights to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Results indicated that citizens' degree of moral conviction about the issue of physician-assisted suicide predicted post-ruling perceptions of outcome fairness, decision acceptance, and changes in perceptions of the Court's legitimacy from pre- to post-ruling. Other results revealed that the effects of religious conviction independently predicted outcome fairness and decision acceptance but not perceptions of post-ruling legitimacy.

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