Moral dilemmas and moral rules

Shaun Nichols, Ron Mallon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

171 Scopus citations


Recent work shows an important asymmetry in lay intuitions about moral dilemmas. Most people think it is permissible to divert a train so that it will kill one innocent person instead of five, but most people think that it is not permissible to push a stranger in front of a train to save five innocents. We argue that recent emotion-based explanations of this asymmetry have neglected the contribution that rules make to reasoning about moral dilemmas. In two experiments, we find that participants show a parallel asymmetry about versions of the dilemmas that have minimized emotional force. In a third experiment, we find that people distinguish between whether an action violates a moral rule and whether it is, all things considered, wrong. We propose that judgments of whether an action is wrong, all things considered, implicate a complex set of psychological processes, including representations of rules, emotional responses, and assessments of costs and benefits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)530-542
Number of pages13
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2006


  • Moral judgement
  • Moral rules
  • Normative ethics
  • Trolley problems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Moral dilemmas and moral rules'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this