Should you sacrifice one rug to save the many? Step aboard to find out.

Should you sacrifice one rug to save the many? Step aboard to find out.

For the Greater Goods? Ownership Rights and Utilitarian Moral Judgment

Millar, J. C., Turri, J., & Friedman, O. (2014). For the greater goods? Ownership rights and utilitarian moral judgment. Cognition, 133(1), 79–84.



People often judge it unacceptable to directly harm a person, even when this is necessary to produce an overall positive outcome, such as saving five other lives. We demonstrate that similar judgments arise when people consider damage to owned objects. In two experiments, participants considered dilemmas where saving five inanimate objects required destroying one. Participants judged this unacceptable when it required violating another’s ownership rights, but not otherwise. They also judged that sacrificing another’s object was less acceptable as a means than as a side-effect; judgments did not depend on whether property damage involved personal force. These findings inform theories of moral decision-making. They show that utilitarian judgment can be decreased without physical harm to persons, and without personal force. The findings also show that the distinction between means and side-effects influences the acceptability of damaging objects, and that ownership impacts utilitarian moral judgment.


J. Charles Millar
Ori Friedman
John Turri