Bertram Gawronski, Paul Conway, Joel B. Armstrong, Rebecca Friesdorf, and Mandy Hütter
In: J. P. Forgas, L. Jussim, & P. A. M. Van Lange (Eds.). (2016). Social psychology of morality. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
For centuries, societies have wrestled with the question of how to balance the rights of the individual versus the greater good (see Forgas, Jussim, & Van Lange, this volume); is it acceptable to ignore a person’s rights in order to increase the overall well-being of a larger number of people? The contentious nature of this issue is reflected in many contemporary examples, including debates about whether it is legitimate to cause harm in order to protect societies against threats (e.g., shooting an abducted passenger plane to prevent a terrorist attack) and whether it is acceptable to refuse life-saving support for some people in order to protect the well-being of many others (e.g., refusing the return of American citizens who became infected with Ebola in Africa for treatment in the US). These issues have captured the attention of social scientists, politicians, philosophers, lawmakers, and citizens alike, partly because they involve a conflict between two moral principles.
The first principle, often associated with the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, emphasizes the irrevocable universality of rights and duties. According to the principle of deontology, the moral status of an action is derived from its consistency with context-independent norms (norm-based morality). From this perspective, violations of moral norms are unacceptable irrespective of the anticipated outcomes (e.g., shooting an abducted passenger plane is always immoral because it violates the moral norm not to kill others). The second principle, often associated with the moral philosophy of John Stuart Mill, emphasizes the greater good. According to the principle of utilitarianism, the moral status of an action depends on its outcomes, more specifically its consequences for overall well-being (outcome-based morality).