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When Causing Harm Is Unavoidable, We Prefer to Cause More Harm for More Benefits Rather Than Less Harm for Fewer

The researchers explicitly asked participants how much they made their decisions based on a desire to do as little harm as possible versus a desire to ensure that the harm they inflicted provided sufficient benefits. They found that in the scenario where harm was avoidable, participants’ decisions were guided more by a desire to reduce harm — but this flipped in the unavoidable condition, in which decision-making was guided more by a desire to maximize the benefits of doing harm. “Thus, value trade-offs 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,” the authors write. A final study found that even “protected values” — those that people consider absolute and unchangeable — can be overridden in situations where harm is unavoidable.

 

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