Framing Effects in Ethical Dilemmas


Research project in experimental philosophy (experimental ethics)

Funded by AHRC, 2010-12

End of project workshop, London, 3-4 May 2012






Natalie Gold (PI)

University of Edinburgh

Andrew Colman (Co-I)

 University of Leicester

  Briony Pulford (Co-I)

University of Leicester

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(1) To gain a better understanding of the ways in which context affects moral decisions. We propose to achieve this by running a series of experiments that systematically vary the context of a set of questions, in a way that is informed by philosophical and psychological theory. Previous research has focused on a very narrow range of cases and contexts. We plan to expand these in order to identify predictable factors that affect moral decision making, and investigate whether these factors are morally relevant or not.


(2) To contribute to the debate about the validity of using thought-experiments and intuitions in moral arguments. Thought experiments are widely used in ethics, and some philosophers argue that it is important for our moral theories to be compatible with our moral intuitions. Opposing this, some philosophers point out that our judgments are subject to psychological biases such as "framing effects" and argue that appeals to intuitions should be banished from philosophical argument. The psychological literature on framing effects was not designed to tackle the questions that philosophers discuss. By running experiments that are targeted at distinctions that philosophers make, ascertaining whether they have support in the general population and what the causes are of intuitive moral judgments, we can generate data that directly bears on the debate about philosophical methodology.


(3) To make a methodological contribution to experimental philosophy. We propose to do this by introducing an experimental methodology that is widely used in psychology and economics. We will combine this with philosophical inquiry and analysis to create an innovative new approach to experimental philosophy.


(4) To discriminate between different theories of the underlying causes of moral decision-making. Previous work in this area has often been done in the context of theory-building. We take a neutral stand, aiming to tease out the implications of these theories in situations for which they were not originally designed, and to design experiments that discriminate between them.


(5) To produce research that can be used to guide those who are involved in moral policy-making decisions. If the description of a problem affects moral judgments, then it is important for those making moral decisions to know the features of the context that may affect their judgments, so that they can take them into account when decision-making. More specifically, the structural problem we will address (whether to prevent a harm to many by causing or allowing harm to a few) is present in a range of policy questions. For example when a surgical team chooses between allowing triplets to die in their mother's womb and killing one of them to save the other two, or when a government decides whether to nationalize a building society, which would protect its savers and mortgagees but harm its shareholders by reducing the value of its shares to zero. The results from our research should feed in to the ethical training that public sector decision-makers receive in, for example, health care, legal and financial professions.





A recent trend in philosophy is experimental ethics, where researchers elicit subjects' moral judgments and investigate the moral psychology behind them. One finding is that moral judgments change depending on the context of the problem as it is described to the subjects. For example, consider the question of whether it is acceptable to sacrifice one life to save five in two different contexts:


The Trolley problem: A trolley is running out of control down a railway track. In its path are five people who will be killed if it continues on its course. By operating a lever, you can divert the trolley on to a different track, where a solitary man in its path will be killed. Is it morally permissible to operate the lever?


The Footbridge problem: A trolley is running out of control down a railway track. In its path are five people who will be killed if it continues on its course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks next to a large man. The only way to save the five people is to push the man off the bridge, into the path of the trolley, where only he will be killed. Is it morally permissible to push the man off the footbridge?


Most people say that it is acceptable to make the sacrifice in the first problem but not in the second. In this project, we propose to investigate what factors drive these moral judgments and their relation to morally relevant features of the context. It is intended as an interdisciplinary project using methods from, and making contributions to, both philosophy and psychology.


The core of the research will be a series of experiments in ethics. As well as generating useful data and testing hypotheses, this will also be a methodological contribution, systematically introducing methods of testing from economics and social psychology to the philosophical debate. We aim to identify features that predictably affect moral judgment (even if people cannot articulate them), and we hope to use our results to discriminate between different theories of moral decision-making.

Total value of the award: £151,217


Some key references


Appiah, A. (2008) Experiments in ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Foot, P. (1967). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect. Oxford Review, 5, 5-15.


Greene, J. D. (2007). Why are VMPFC patients more utilitarian? A dual-process theory of moral judgment explains. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 322-323.


Hauser, M. D. (2007). Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.


Kahneman, D. (1994). The cognitive psychology of consequences and moral intuition. The Tanner Lecture in Human Values. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.


Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (Eds.). (2000). Choices, values, and frames. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Kamm, F. M. (2007) Intricate Ethics New York, Oxford University Press.


Knobe, J. & Nichols, S. (2008) Experimental Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.


Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence, and the future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11, 143-152.


Thomson, J. J. (1976). Killing, letting die, and the Trolley problem. The Monist, 59, 204-217.