Skip to main content

Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology

Kahane, Guy, Everett, Jim A.C., Earp, Brian D., Caviola, Lucius, Faber, Nadira S., Crockett, Molly J., Savulescu, Julian (2018) Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology. Psychological Review, 125 (2). pp. 131-164. ISSN 0033-295X. (doi:10.1037/rev0000093) (KAR id:73822)

PDF Publisher pdf
Language: English

Download (424kB) Preview
[thumbnail of Kahane, Everett et al. (2018) Psychological Review 2D Model Utilitarian Psychology.pdf]
This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology.
Request an accessible format
Official URL


Recent research has relied on trolley-type sacrificial moral dilemmas to study utilitarian versus nonutilitarian modes of moral decision-making. This research has generated important insights into people’s attitudes toward instrumental harm—that is, the sacrifice of an individual to save a greater number. But this approach also has serious limitations. Most notably, it ignores the positive, altruistic core of utilitarianism, which is characterized by impartial concern for the well-being of everyone, whether near or far. Here, we develop, refine, and validate a new scale—the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale—to dissociate individual differences in the ‘negative’ (permissive attitude toward instrumental harm) and ‘positive’ (impartial concern for the greater good) dimensions of utilitarian thinking as manifested in the general population. We show that these are two independent dimensions of proto-utilitarian tendencies in the lay population, each exhibiting a distinct psychological profile. Empathic concern, identification with the whole of humanity, and concern for future generations were positively associated with impartial beneficence but negatively associated with instrumental harm; and although instrumental harm was associated with subclinical psychopathy, impartial beneficence was associated with higher religiosity. Importantly, although these two dimensions were independent in the lay population, they were closely associated in a sample of moral philosophers. Acknowledging this dissociation between the instrumental harm and impartial beneficence components of utilitarian thinking in ordinary people can clarify existing debates about the nature of moral psychology and its relation to moral philosophy as well as generate fruitful avenues for further research.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1037/rev0000093
Uncontrolled keywords: empathy, impartiality, moral dilemmas, moral psychology, utilitarianism
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Depositing User: Jim Everett
Date Deposited: 08 May 2019 19:01 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2021 14:04 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
Everett, Jim A.C.:
  • Depositors only (login required):


Downloads per month over past year