Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Kahane & Everett, et al. (2018)


Much work in moral psychology has relied on trolley type sacrificial moral dilemmas to study utilitarian vs. non-utilitarian modes of moral decision-making. This has generated important insights into people’s moral attitudes to instrumental harm—i.e. to the sacrifice of one individual in order to save a greater number. But this approach also has serious limitations, and most notably ignores the positive, altruistic core of utilitarianism – impartial beneficence –  which is characterized by impartial concern for the well-being of everyone, whether near or far. With Guy Kahane and colleagues, I have developed, refined, and validated a new scale – the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale – to dissociate individual differences in these ‘negative’ (permissive attitude to instrumental harm) and ‘positive’ (impartial concern about the greater good) dimensions of utilitarian thinking as manifested in the general population.

In the corresponding paper (Kahane, Everett, et al. 2018), we show that these are two independent dimensions of proto-utilitarian tendencies in the lay population, and each exhibits a distinct psychological profile. For example, empathic concern, identification with the whole of humanity, and concern for future generations are positively associated with Impartial Beneficence but negatively associated with Instrumental Harm. On the other hand, while Instrumental Harm was associated with sub-clinical psychopathy, Impartial Beneficence was associated with higher religiosity.

Instructions for Researchers

The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale (OUS) consists of two sub scales. The first subscale – Impartial Beneficence (OUS-IB) – consists of 5 items that all tap endorsement of the impartial maximization of the greater good, even at the cost of personal self-sacrifice. The second subscale Instrumental Harm (OUS-IH) consists of 4 items that all tap a willingness to cause harm in order to bring about the greater good.

Items should be presented on a single page in a randomised order, and participants answer on 7-point scale from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree”. There are no items to be reverse-coded, and mean scores should be calculated for both subscales individually. It is recommended to look at the subscales in isolation, but all items can be combined to look at overall Utilitarianism scores.

Scale Items

Impartial Beneficence Sub Scale (OUS-IB):

  1. If the only way to save another person’s life during an emergency is to sacrifice one’s own leg, then one is morally required to make this sacrifice.
  2. From a moral point of view, we should feel obliged to give one of our kidneys to a person with kidney failure since we don’t need two kidneys to survive, but really only one to be healthy.
  3. From a moral perspective, people should care about the well-being of all human beings on the planet equally; they should not favor the well-being of people who are especially close to them either physically or emotionally.
  4. It is just as wrong to fail to help someone as it is to actively harm them yourself.
  5. It is morally wrong to keep money that one doesn’t really need if one can donate it to causes that provide effective help to those who will benefit a great deal.

Instrumental Harm Sub Scale (OUS-IH):

  1. It is morally right to harm an innocent person if harming them is a necessary means to helping several other innocent people.
  2. If the only way to ensure the overall well-being and happiness of the people is through the use of political oppression for a short, limited period, then political oppression should be used.
  3. It is permissible to torture an innocent person if this would be necessary to provide information to prevent a bomb going off that would kill hundreds of people.
  4. Sometimes it is morally necessary for innocent people to die as collateral damage—if more people are saved overall.
Take the OUS! How Utilitarian are you?


Kahane, G**., Everett, J.A.C.**, Earp, B.D., Caviola, L., Faber, N.S., Crockett, M.J., & Savulescu, J. (In Press). Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology. Psychological Review.

** Indicates shared first authorship


For your convenience I have provided downloads of a PDF copy of the survey, a Qualtrics qsf file to import a pre-formatted OUS into your own Qualtrics surveys, and an R Script to recode, combine, and then examine scores on the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. Please click the links below.