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Ethics Under Uncertainty: The Morality and Appropriateness of Utilitarianism When Outcomes Are Uncertain

KATHERINE V. KORTENK AMP and COLLEEN F. MOORE
The American Journal of Psychology
Vol. 127, No. 3 (Fall 2014), pp. 367-382
DOI: 10.5406/amerjpsyc.127.3.0367
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/amerjpsyc.127.3.0367
Page Count: 16
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Ethics Under Uncertainty: The Morality and Appropriateness of Utilitarianism When Outcomes Are Uncertain
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Abstract

Real-life moral dilemmas inevitably involve uncertainty, yet research has not considered how uncertainty affects utilitarian moral judgments. In addition, even though moral dilemma researchers regularly ask respondents, “What is appropriate?” but interpret it to mean, “What is moral?,” little research has examined whether a difference exists between asking these 2 types of questions. In this study, 140 college students read moral dilemmas that contained certain or uncertain consequences and then responded as to whether it was appropriate and whether it was moral to kill 1 to save many (a utilitarian choice). Ratings of the appropriateness and morality of the utilitarian choice were lower under uncertainty than certainty. A follow-up experiment found that these results could not be explained entirely by a change in the expected values of the outcomes or a desire to avoid the worst-case scenario. In addition, the utilitarian choice to kill 1 to save many was rated as more appropriate than moral. The results imply that moral decision making may depend critically on whether uncertainties in outcomes are admitted and whether people are asked about appropriateness or morality.

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