Authority dependence and judgments of utilitarian harm

Jared Piazza, Paulo Sousa, Colin Holbrook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Three studies tested the conditions under which people judge utilitarian harm to be authority dependent (i.e., whether its right or wrongness depends on the ruling of an authority). In Study 1, participants judged the right or wrongness of physical abuse when used as an interrogation method anticipated to yield useful information for preventing future terrorist attacks. The ruling of the military authority towards the harm was manipulated (prohibited vs. prescribed) and found to significantly influence judgments of the right or wrongness of inflicting harm. Study 2 established a boundary condition with regards to the influence of authority, which was eliminated when the utility of the harm was definitely obtained rather than forecasted. Finally, Study 3 replicated the findings of Studies 1-2 in a completely different context—an expert committee’s ruling about the harming of chimpanzees for biomedical research. These results are discussed as they inform ongoing debates regarding the role of authority in moderating judgments of complex and simple harm. 2013 Elsevier B.V. © All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)261-270
Number of pages9
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2013


  • Utilitarian harm
  • Authority
  • Moral judgments
  • Moral reasoning
  • Moral dilemmas
  • Moral/conventional task

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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