By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It's a pretty odd scenario, and one we don't face every day:
“An out of control trolley is speeding towards a group of five people. You are standing on a footbridge next to a large man. If you push him off the bridge onto the track below, this will stop the trolley. He will die, but the five others will be saved. What do you do?”
As odd as it is, this is a familiar scenario in moral foundations research, called the "trolley problem." It is useful to those who research popular views of morality because it neatly separates consequential and deontological reasoners. The consequential reasoners are those who would prefer the familiar cost-benefit or utilitarian calculation: Better to save more lives, so go ahead and give that large man a push. The deontological reasoners, on the other hand, will hold that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on whether it adheres to a good principle, and not to its individual consequences: Because it's never right to take an innocent life, the large man stays on the bridge, and unfortunately the five in the trolley's path die. The dilemma not only echoes the long-simmering debate between Immanuel Kant and J.S. Mill, it also provides a window into a given individual's moral foundations, and how you answer will influence how you're perceived.
A current article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (Everett, Pizarro & Crockett, 2016) compared the amount of trust received by individuals who made either the principle-based decision or the utilitarian decision in the trolley story and other similar scenarios. Over the course of five experiments involving more than 2,400 participants, the team from Oxford and Cornell found that "agents who express deontological moral judgments are more valued as social partners." In other words, if you decline to push the large man off the bridge, you win more trust. As one of the authors, Dr. Molly Crocket, explained, "When asked to entrust another person with a sum of money, participants handed over more money, and were more confident of getting it back, when dealing with someone who refused to sacrifice one to save many, versus with someone who chose to maximize the overall number of lives saved." Moral foundations, as well as the practicalities of winning trust, have relevance in litigation as well. How should individuals and companies represent their moral compass when at trial? To the extent that jurors will want to discover and assess your principles when assessing credibility, what are they likely to find? This post takes a look at the study and also shares a few thoughts on discovering and communicating your principles in a trial context.