For Whom Do the Ends Justify the Means? Social Class and Utilitarian Moral Judgment

Though scholars have speculated for centuries on links between individuals’ social class standing and approach to moral reasoning, little systematic research exists on how class and morality are associated. Here, we investigate whether the tendency of upper-class individuals to exhibit reduced empathy makes them more likely to resist intuitionist options in moral dilemmas, instead favoring utilitarian choices that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. In Study 1, upper-class participants were more likely than lower-class participants to choose the utilitarian option in the footbridge dilemma, which evokes relatively strong moral intuitions, but not in the standard trolley dilemma, which evokes relatively weak moral intuitions. In Study 2, upper-class participants were more likely to take resources from one person to benefit several others in an allocation task, and this association was explained by their lower empathy for the person whose resources were taken. Finally, in Study 3, the association between social class and utilitarian judgment was reduced in a condition in which empathy was induced, but not in a control condition, suggesting that reduced empathy helps account for the utilitarianism of upper-class individuals.