Revisiting the trolley dilemma

British Psychological Science Research Digest:

Moral psychology gets more tricky when the interests of the many are pitted against the few, as in the classic “trolley dilemma”, in which a person must divert a hurtling trolley towards a lone victim, so as to save the lives of five others.

In a new analysis, using multiple variants of this classic moral brain-teaser, Joshua Greene and colleagues show that when it comes to judging the moral acceptability of a person’s actions, there seems to be something special about whether or not they used their own muscular force, and whether or not they intended any subsequent harm caused.

Students judged as most morally unacceptable a situation in which Joe deliberately pushed a victim off a bridge so that he could reach a switch to save five others. By contrast, if the victim was knocked off the bridge accidentally so Joe could reach the switch, or if Joe killed him by diverting a trolley with a switch, then the students’ moral judgements were not so harsh.

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