Differences In Power Correlated With Differences In Moral Judgment?

Interesting study:

Those who were pre-programmed to think in terms of having power “had a stronger preference for the rule-based more considerations, compared to participants in the low-power condition, who had a stronger preference for the outcome-based moral considerations.”

The researchers did find one exception to this pattern. In a final test, which was constructed so that rule-based thinking would not work to the advantage of the powerful, participants in the high-power category were less inclined than their low-power counterparts to endorse playing by the rules. Self-interest apparently trumps abstract ethical concepts.

Lammers and Stapel put it more delicately, noting that “rule-based thinking is attractive to the powerful because stability is in their interest and, therefore, cognitively appealing.” They also call attention to previous research suggesting powerful people tend to focus on the big picture rather than small details (which some researchers believe is one reason they successfully move up the ladder). This predisposition could presumably lead them to favor a stable, rule-based system over one that makes exceptions.

That all makes sense—the powerful endorse rules for others because they’re a means to maintaining the order that preserves their power and yet make exceptions for themselves whereas the disempowered fear getting in trouble because of an  unbending rule and so are more likely to appreciate the need for flexibility in complicated situations.  But they’re also not as cavalier about bending rules for self-interest as those who see themselves as powerful.

That all sounds quite plausible to me intuitively, at least.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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