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Moral choice when harming is unavoidable


Psychological Science



Authors / Editors

Berman J Z;Kupor D


Publication Year



Past research suggests that actors seek to minimize harm often at the cost of maximizing social welfare. However, this prior research has confounded a desire to minimize the negative impact caused by one’s actions (harm aversion) with a desire to avoid causing any harm whatsoever (harm avoidance). Across six studies (N = 2,152), we demonstrate that these two motives are distinct. Specifically, we find that when decision-makers can completely avoid committing a harmful act they strongly prefer to do so. However, harming often cannot be avoided, and decision-makers must choose between committing less harm for less benefit or committing more harm for more benefit. In these cases, harm aversion diminishes substantially, and decision-makers become increasingly willing to commit greater harm to obtain greater benefits. Thus, value-tradeoffs that decision-makers refuse to accept when it is possible to completely avoid committing harm can suddenly become desirable when some harm must be committed.


Moral choice; Value-tradeoffs; Harm aversion; Harm avoidance; Protected values

Publication Notes

(title changed from Crossing the line: on the distinction between harm aversion and harm avoidance in moral choice)

Available on ECCH


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