The needs of the many: Influence of personality on third-party judgments of utilitarian rule violations
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Description: Safeguarding the rights of minorities is crucial for just societies. However, there are conceivable situations were minority rights might seriously impede the rights of the majority. Favoring the minority in such cases constitutes a violation of utilitarian principles. To investigate the emotional, cognitive, and punitive responses of observers on/to such utilitarian rule transgressions, we conducted an in online study with 1004 participants. Two moral scenarios (vaccine policy and epidemic) were rephrased in the third-party perspective. In both scenarios the protagonist opted against the utilitarian option, which resulted in more fatalities than necessary, but eventually avoided harm of a minority. The scenarios varied whether the minority would have been harmed accidentally or deliberately. The majority of participants chose not to punish the scenarios’ protagonists at all. However, if the minority would have been harmed accidentally only, 30.5% judged that favoring to protect the minority over the interests of the majority was worthy of punishment; in comparison, only 11.5% opted to punish a protagonist who rejected to allow deliberate harm to a minority in order to protect the majority. Emotional responses and appropriateness ratings paralleled these results. Furthermore, complex personality × situation interactions revealed personality features (i.e., psychopathy, empathy, altruism, authoritarianism, need for cognition and faith in intuition) as key modulators of the participants’ responses. These results further underscore the need to consider the interaction of situational features and inter-individual differences in moral decisions and sense of justice.