Priming intuition disfavors instrumental harm but not impartial beneficence

Valerio Capraro, Jim A.C. Everett, Brian D. Earp
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (83), 142–149

Understanding the cognitive underpinnings of moral judgment is one of most pressing problems in psychological science. Some highly-cited studies suggest that reliance on intuition decreases utilitarian (expected welfare maximizing) judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas in which one has to decide whether to instrumentally harm (IH) one person to save a greater number of people. However, recent work suggests that such dilemmas are limited in that they fail to capture the positive, defining core of utilitarianism: commitment to impartial ben- eficence (IB). Accordingly, a new two-dimensional model of utilitarian judgment has been proposed that dis- tinguishes IH and IB components. The role of intuition on this new model has not been studied. Does relying on intuition disfavor utilitarian choices only along the dimension of instrumental harm or does it also do so along the dimension of impartial beneficence? To answer this question, we conducted three studies (total N = 970, two preregistered) using conceptual priming of intuition versus deliberation on moral judgments. Our evidence converges on an interaction effect, with intuition decreasing utilitarian judgments in IH—as suggested by pre- vious work—but failing to do so in IB. These findings bolster the recently proposed two-dimensional model of utilitarian moral judgment, and point to new avenues for future research.