The Construction of Utilitarian Moral Behaviour
: Evidence from Perspective-Taking Accessibility

  • Rose Martin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


For centuries, moral philosophers and decision-making theorists have been interested in whether people’s preferences conform to utilitarian expectations, where it is acceptable to sacrifice one person in order to save many others (Bentham, 1789/1970). However, I argue that despite many moral dilemmas requiring participants to reason about moral perspectives, they do not contain full perspective-taking (PT) accessibility. For example, in the autonomous vehicle (AV) dilemma (Bonnefon et al., 2016), participants are asked to make judgements in response to scenarios offering partial PT accessibility. In particular, in the scenario, participants are presented with the perspective of a passenger travelling inside an AV that is about to crash into a group of 10 pedestrians but are not offered the perspective of the pedestrians. Accordingly, participants’ judgements of moral appropriateness and subsequent purchasing behaviour (whether they would like to buy a utilitarian or non-utilitarian AV) are biased by scenarios offering partial PT accessibility. It is little wonder then why Bonnefon et al.’s (2016) findings reveal that people, despite their utilitarian moral judgements, do not express prosocial utilitarian purchasing behaviour; they do not want to buy the utilitarian AV that they judged to be the most moral. Accordingly, in 9 Experiments, I explored the influence of PT accessibility on participants’ moral preferences. In Experiments 1-4, I demonstrate that when offered full PT accessibility to AV crash scenarios, participants’ moral utilitarian judgements informed their utilitarian purchasing and usage behaviours (purchasing value, willingness to buy and ride AVs). In other words, people wanted to buy and ride the utilitarian AV that they judged to be moral. Moreover, utilitarian preferences were found to be consistent across type of involvement (stranger, participant and family member), judgement tasks (judgements of moral appropriateness, purchasing value, willingness to buy and willingness to ride AVs; Experiments 3, 4, 8 and 9), preference elicitation methods (judgements vs. choice; Experiments 5 and 6) and psychological processing employed by the participants (immediate, conscious and unconscious; Experiments 7-9). Thus, the present thesis provides theoretical and empirical evidence for PT accessibility and its importance in informing people’s moral behaviour. Moreover, this thesis offers commercial and policymaking insights for promoting public acceptance of autonomous systems.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPetko Kusev (Main Supervisor) & Eleanor Davies (Co-Supervisor)

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