Social Justice Research

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 165–184 | Cite as

The Preference for Indirect Harm

  • Edward B. Royzman
  • Jonathan Baron


We presented subjects pairs of hypothetical scenarios. The action in each scenario harmed some people in order to aid others. In one member of the pair, the harm was a direct result of the action. In the other member, it was an indirect byproduct. Subjects preferred the indirect harm to the direct harm. This result could not be fully explained in terms of differences in judgments about which option was more active, more intentional, more likely to cause harm, or more subject to the disapproval of others. Taken together, these findings provide evidence for a new bias in judgment, a tendency to favor indirectly harmful options over directly harmful alternatives, irrespective of the associated outcomes, intentions, or self-presentational concerns. We speculate that this bias could originate from the use of a typical but somewhat unreliable property of harmful acts, their directness, as a cue to moral evaluation. We discuss the implications of the bias for a range of social issues, including the distinction between passive and active euthanasia, legal deterrence, and the rhetoric of affirmative action.

tragic moral choices omission bias direct vs. indirect harm Kant 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward B. Royzman
    • 1
  • Jonathan Baron
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphia

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