St Thomas Aquinas, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1468 -1484 (Courtesy: Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Ideas for Leaders #607

We Trust People Who Believe in Absolute Moral Rules

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.

Key Concept

Most people live by a set of moral rules that guides their decision-making. For example: killing is never justified. What happens, however, if the death of one person could save the lives of many? Should the rule be ignored in this case? Many people would say yes — the consequences change the situation. A new study, however, shows that in the workplace, these ‘consequentialists’ will be less trusted than those who live by immutable moral rules.

Idea Summary

Most people make moral judgements intuitively: we feel what is right or wrong. For example, imagine a dilemma in which a runaway trolley is racing toward five people, who will be killed if the trolley is not stopped. A man named Adam stands on a footbridge overlooking the trolley tracks. In an effort to save the five people on the tracks, Adam pushes a very large man standing next to him off the bridge. The large man falls onto the tracks and, as Adam predicted, his body stops the train, thus saving the lives of the five other people.

Was Adam’s actions morally justified? If you were a consequentialist, you would say yes: the man sacrificed one life in order to save five. The consequences of the action justified the act. If you were a deontologist, you would say no. Killing is wrong, even if killing one person saves the lives of five others.

Studies have shown that our intuitive moral judgements are deontological: that is, we believe there are certain moral rules to follow, whether or not the consequences advise us otherwise.

One potential explanation for the prevalence of our intuitive deontological moral judgements is an evolution-based partner choice theory. People are more likely to trust and work with those who follow moral rules than with those who consider the consequences before making a moral judgement. Over time, this social partner preference solidified into the overriding intuition that deontologist judgements were more moral than consequentialist judgements.

The partner choice explanation, however, is based on an assumption: that people do prefer partnering with deontologists over consequentialists because they are considered more trustworthy and moral. To test this assumption a team of researchers conducted a series of experiments, using hypothetical dilemmas (such as the footbridge dilemma described above). In each experiment, participants noted their preference for the deontologist or consequentialist action, and then chose either deontologist or consequentialist partners to play trust games with, including one involving money.

The results of the study showed a clear link between deontological judgement and perceived trustworthiness and morality. However, the various experiments also revealed some mitigating factors.

The difficulty of the decision played a role. People who made the consequentialist choice but at least did so with some difficulty were considered more trustworthy than consequentialists who had no hesitation about their decisions.

Another experiment, using a variation of the footbridge dilemma, highlighted an important issue in the discussion: the use of other people as a means to an end, even if that ‘end’ is beneficial. In this variation, Adam chooses to sacrifice one life to save five, but does so by diverting the runaway trolley to another track (where there is but one worker in the way). Participants accepted this consequential act because Adam had not actually ‘used’ somebody to save the others.

A final experiment showed that the desires of people also mitigated the preference for deontologists. In this experiment, the majority of participants believed that a commanding officer should kill a wounded soldier if that soldier is asking to be killed to avoid being captured by the enemy and tortured. The participants were also willing to partner with people who supported this consequential act.

Business Application

This study has important leadership and teamwork implications. If you want to be perceived as trustworthy and moral, avoid consequentialism. Make it clear that there are certain moral rules to follow. If a consequential action must be taken, show clearly that the decision is difficult.

The study also showed that consequential decisions will be accepted if they do not violate social expectations. Using other people is never accepted. In contrast, fulfilling other people’s wishes for a socially accepted outcome (e.g. preventing pain) might be understood more easily — even if the fulfilment of those wishes goes against general social norms and practices.

Although there are variations and mitigations, the bottom line remains simple: don’t equivocate when it comes to morality. Such equivocation is the quickest path to lack of trust.

Contact Us




Idea conceived

  • April 2016

Idea posted

  • May 2016

DOI number



Real Time Analytics