Baron, J. (1996). Do no harm. In D. M. Messick & A. E. Tenbrunsel (Eds.), Codes of conduct: Behavioral research into business ethics, pp. 197-213. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Do no harm

Jonathan Baron1
University of Pennsylvania

In D. M. Messick & A. E. Tenbrunsel (Eds.), Codes of conduct: Behavioral research into business ethics, pp. 197-213. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Ethics, including business ethics, is often seen as a kind of constraint, like the law. We desire to do something, but first we must ask whether it is unethical. Even if it is the best thing to do, the ethicist, like the lawyer, can tell us that we shouldn't do it. For example, it is ``unethical'' for doctors to inform someone that her lover is infected with HIV. In some states, it is illegal too.

Ethical systems based on constraints imply an asymmetry between action and inaction. They hold us responsible for harms that we cause through action but not for harms that we fail to prevent. More specifically, they hold us responsible for all harms that we cause through action but only for some harms that we fail to prevent. Codes of ethics for business, medicine, law, psychology, and so on, do contain positive obligations that are contingent on certain relationships, such as that between a practitioner and a client, or a buyer and a seller.2

But these obligations are limited. They can be seen as the result of certain social conventions, which create expectations. I expect my doctor to look at my blood-test results before filing them, although I would not expect another doctor who happened to see them lying on the table to inform him or me of any problems. My expectation is a consequence of what it means to be a doctor in my culture. The law of torts recognizes such expectations. I can sue my doctor for failing to alert me to a condition that needs attention, but I can't sue you for the same thing (unless you are him). It is important here that he agreed to be my doctor. So if he fails in his role, it is a broken promise. The promise is not explicit, but contained in the definition of the role. In sum, the positive obligations that stem from ethical codes are almost always contingent on voluntary promises and agreements. Likewise, in business, almost all positive obligations arise from contracts, even if the contracts are only implicit.

This kind of constraint-based ethical system can be contrasted with simple utilitarianism. Simple utilitarianism holds that moral obligations depend on expected consequences. We should always choose the option that yields the best expected consequences overall. We are free to consider all sorts of consequences in making this judgment, including the effects of our choices on the choices of others. But utilitarianism makes no distinction between acts and omissions. For example, decisions about life-sustaining medical therapy should be based primarily on a judgment of whether it is better on the whole for the patient to be dead. If we judge that it is, and if the outcome is in our power to control, then it does not matter whether our decision is whether to initiate therapy, whether to withdraw therapy that has already been initiated, or whether to kill the patient (painlessly). Of course, when we actually consider the effects of our choices on others and the possibility of error, these distinctions may turn out to matter. But they do not matter in themselves. They matter just in case they affect the expected consequences.

In this paper, I want to do the following: 1., sketch a defense of the utilitarian view of the non-distinction between acts and omissions; 2., explain how utilitarians can honor this distinction in some situations, because of its effects on consequences; 3., suggest that many people regard the act-omission distinction as fundamental rather than derived from consideration of consequences; 4., suggest that people do, however, qualify the distinction in a number of ways that can be understood as an overextension of a legalistic view of morality; and, 5., discuss the implications of what I take to be this incorrect understanding of the distinction, for a number of moral issues.

A utilitarian view

I take the fundamental moral question to be about the advice we give each other about what to do, about what choices to make.3 We give this advice in a variety of ways. We teach our children and students about right and wrong. We express judgments about particular cases. We gossip. We mete out punishment and reward. Expressions of judgment and the assignment of punishment and reward are themselves actions that have other consequences aside from advice giving, so we cannot take them as fundamental. We may, for example, not punish a woman who takes cocaine while pregnant even if we think this is a horrendous act, just because we do not want to discourage other mothers from seeking treatment.

But what advice should we give? What should be the content of morality? The standard way of answering this question in modern philosophy is to consult our moral intuitions, that is, our judgments about cases and principles. The assumption here is that somehow we have come to make the correct judgments. We may err occasionally, but we can catch these errors by detecting inconsistencies with other judgments and reflecting on them. We reason in the manner of judges, finding precedents and principles and applying them to the cases before us, until we feel that we have it right.

Against this view, I claim that these intuitions are systematically biased. If we apply this method, we will get the wrong answer. To evaluate my claim, we must put aside our intuitions and try to figure out what advice we would give without them. We can do this because our moral intuitions are not the only things we value. They are limited to the values we have for the behavior of people, independent of their own values for outcomes.4 We can put aside our moral intuitions and still be left with other reasons to give advice, primarily our concern for other people's values for outcomes, their own utilities, reflected in our altruistic concern. If we think this way, we will decide that the act-omission distinction itself is irrelevant, except when it affects consequences, because it is the consequences that matter. If, on the other hand, we consult our moral intutions, many of us will conclude that the distinction is relevant whether it affects consequences or not, and our intuitions will lead us to produce worse consequences than if we attended to consequences only.5

The definition of morality in terms of advice giving helps us reconstruct morality after putting aside our intuitions. Ordinarily, we can give advice because of our own particular values. I can advise you to do the things that I like to see you do. For example, if I am against public nudity, I can rail against nude beaches. But why should you follow such advice? It is clearly my values that motivate it. The kind of advice that you might follow is what springs from altruistic values, from my interest in seeing that the objectives of others are satisfied. If you see my advice as coming from such values, you have two reasons to follow it: your own interests and your own altruism. In sum, the effective advice that we have reason to give must stem from our interest in seeing the objectives of others satisfied.

Advice that stems from such values does not distinguish among the means by which the objectives of people are achieved, unless, of course, these means have effects of their own on what people value. In that case, it is not the means themselves that matter, but the effects, effects that we would value no matter how they were brought about. Any other advice that I give is necessarily an attempt to impose my own values on people who do not necessarily share them. For example, consider a vaccine or drug that cures some disease but has side effects that are as bad as the disease although less likely. My all-things-considered judgment is that people's values for health are better served if the vaccine is used than if it is not used. If I were a government official in charge of approving the drug, I should approve it, and if I were anyone else I should support its approval. If I oppose approval because I have a strong intuitive moral rule against causing harm through action (vaccinating) but no equivalent rule against causing harm through omission (failing to vaccinate), then I am going against my best judgment of how the objectives of others are best satisfied. I would follow my rule without regard to what other people valued (and without regard to any altruistic concern I have to see that their values are satisfied), so I am imposing my moral intuitions on people to their overall detriment.

Satisfaction of values is what we mean by consequences. This view thus helps us to define this difficult term. Of course, I have put aside a number of issues, such as how we consider probabilities, how we measure degree of value satisfaction, or utility, and how we aggregate utility across individuals and over time. For present purposes, we can finesse such questions by relying on simple, holistic, judgments of expected consequences, as in the case I just gave. In that case, we can simply assume that, since we do not know who the victims are, everyone has the same utility for health vs. disease, so the fewer sick people the better.

We can, if we want, develop moral systems for particular social groups, such as families, nations, or religions. Some philosophers have taken this approach, regarding morality as setting up background conditions for national government. Traditional civic morality, in which loyalty to country is a virtue, can appeal to citizens whose decisions affect each other primarily. Moral advice for limited groups, however, cannot expect to find an audience outside the group. More importantly, such limitations are arbitrary, since groups can be defined in many ways. Utilitarians have traditionally argued that morality concerns all people, indeed, even all sentient beings (Singer, 1982). We shall see that there is a role for group loyalty, but not as a fundamental justification. It is something that must be justified by appeal to the greater good of all.

How utilitarians honor the act-omission distinction

Although utilitarians do not distinguish acts and omissions when consequences are otherwise held constant, they do recognize situations in which, as a general rule, the distinction should be honored because of the consequences. I think that all of these situations can be subsumed under the concepts of lines of authority. Social custom, convention, and law dictates that certain decisions are to be made be certain people. We say that these people are ``responsible'' for the decision. At one extreme, national governments are responsible for certain decisions about their citizens. At the other extreme, individuals are responsible for certain decisions about their own lives. In the middle, decision-making authority is allocated in complex ways within institutions like corporations. Social groups may differ, of course, in how they assign such responsibilities.

If someone violates these lines of authority by doing something in someone else's domain, then the whole system of responsibility allocation is thereby weakened. Other people will be tempted to step across the same line. For example, the United Nations invasion of Somalia in 1992 created a precedent that was seen as weakening somewhat the power of national governments. Of course, Somalia had no such government, but many other nations could be described in the same terms without too much exaggeration. At the other extreme, health professionals sometimes override the expressed desires of a patient on the grounds that anyone who expresses such desires (e.g., against treatment for an easily treatable condition) is incompetent to decide for herself. This weakens the ``autonomy'' of individuals, the authority that they are granted for making health decisions for themselves. In the middle, if one member of a company reports a problem occurring in another division to her own boss, that weakens the lines of authority for dealing with similar problems, even if the report helps to solve the problem. As the Bhagavad-Gita puts it (3: 35), ``Better one's own duty, though void of merit, than to do another's well; ... perilous is the duty of other men.''

Notice that these good acts - helping the people of a desperate nation, treating a sick patient, helping another division - have bad side effects. Omitting to perform such helpful acts does cause harm, but it causes less harm than if these side effects were absent. In most cases, the harm from the side effects is even greater than the benefit from the acts. Thus, these otherwise harmful omissions become excusable or even desirable because of their side effects. Harmful acts, by contrast, have no such compensating benefits. We are thus led to an asymmetry between acts and omissions. The asymmetry results from the conflicts that would arise if two people were responsible for the same decision.

A second thing to notice about this utilitarian analysis is apparent in the examples. The bad effects of going outside of the line of authority are just bad effects to be weighed against other effects, not absolute prohibitions. Thus, intervention into the affairs of other nations, violations of individual autonomy, and reporting problems in another division are sometimes justified. Moreover, in some cases, the bad effects are not so bad. Arguably, some lines of authority should be weakened. Laws against child abuse may weaken the authority of parents over their children, but this kind of authority we do not need. If such laws weaken parental authority more generally, that may well be a price worth paying.

Against such arguments, the slippery-slope argument is often raised. Yes, it may be best in this case to violate the lines of authority, but that will set a precedent toward other such decisions, which will go too far. One answer to this slippery slope argument is that the slope slips both ways. Allowing parents to beat their children, allowing people to starve because they have no government, and allowing people to die because they refuse helpful treatment, all in the name of preserving the lines of authority, can lead to further callousness, indifference, and suffering. Perhaps the best precedent is to make the best decision. On the other hand, there may be cases where a clear line must be drawn to avoid a particular kind of temptation that would make one slope more slippery than the other, such as rules against nepotism.

In sum, the utilitarian view makes a distinction between acts and omissions just in those cases in which social practice establish lines of authority that yield good consequences in the long run, but the distinction thus made is not absolute and can be overridden.

The ``do no harm'' heuristic

Many subjects distinguish between harms caused by acts and omissions, and the conditions under which they do this seem to have little to do with the utilitarian arguments just advanced. In particular, many results are difficult to justify in terms of lines of authority, and subjects do not typically bring up this argument.

For example, Ritov and Baron (1990) examined a set of hypothetical vaccination decisions. In one experiment, subjects were told to imagine that their child had a 10 out of 10,000 chance of death from a flu epidemic, a vaccine could prevent the flu, but the vaccine itself could kill some number of children. Subjects were asked to indicate the maximum overall death rate for vaccinated children for which they would be willing to vaccinate their child. Most subjects answered well below 9 per 10,000. Of the subjects who showed this kind of reluctance, the mean tolerable risk was about 5 out of 10,000, half the risk of the illness itself. The results were also found when subjects were asked to take the position of a policy maker deciding for large numbers of children. When subjects were asked for justifications, some said that they would be responsible for any deaths caused by the vaccine, but they would not be (as) responsible for deaths caused by failure to vaccinate. When subjects were asked to consider the desires of those affected by their choice, the bias was largely eliminated (Baron, 1992). This bias correlates with mothers' resistance toward DPT vaccination (which may produce death or permanent damage in a very few children) (Asch et al., 1993).

Other studies (Ritov & Baron, 1992; Spranca, Minsk, & Baron, 1991) indicate a general bias toward omissions over acts that produce the same harmful outcome. In one case of Spranca et al.\ (1991), for example, subjects were told about John, a tennis player who thought he could beat Ivan Lendl only if Lendl were ill. John knew that Ivan was allergic to cayenne pepper, so, when John and Ivan went out to the customary dinner before their match, John planned to recommend to Ivan the house salad dressing, which contained cayenne pepper. Subject were asked to compare John's morality in different endings to the story. In one ending, John recommended the dressing. In another ending, John was about to recommend the dressing when Ivan chose it for himself, and John, of course, said nothing. Ten out of 33 subjects thought that John's behavior was worse in the commission ending, and no subject thought that the omission was worse. In this case, one might appeal to lines of authority, and some subject did so, e.g., ``It isn't John's responsibility to warn Ivan about the cayenne. It's Lendl's responsibility to ask ....'' Most subjects in this case and others, however, simply appealed to the action-omission distinction directly, e.g., ``John did not recommend the dressing.'' ``Choosing to do nothing isn't really immoral.'' ``John doesn't plant the seed, he just lets it grow.''

Baron and Ritov (1994) found that this asymmetry between action and omission is typically found only for bad outcomes, that is, outcomes that are worse than the outcome produced by an another option. We may thus think of omission bias - the tendency to consider harmful acts to be worse than equally harmful omissions - as caused by the use of a heuristic rule against causing harm (relative to the foregone option) through action. Hence the characterization of the results as a rule against ``doing harm'' as opposed to ``bringing harm about.'' This heuristic is not always absolute, although some people may think of it that way some of the time. (Baron & Ritov discuss the relation between omission bias, harm avoidance, loss aversion, and norm theory.)

People seem to apply this do-no-harm principle to groups as well as to individuals, even when they themselves judge the utilitarian consequences to be worse. Baron and Jurney (1993) presented subjects with six proposed reforms, each involving some public coercion, such as compulsory vaccination and tort reform involving elimination of lawsuits. Most subjects judged the reforms to be beneficial on the whole, but many of these subjects said that they would not vote for the reforms. Grounds for opposing such beneficial proposals included unfairness in the distribution of costs or benefits and harm to some people despite benefits to others. In one study, 39% of subjects said they would vote for a 100% tax on gasoline (to counter global warming), but 48% of the non-voters thought that the tax would do more good than harm on the whole. Subjects would thus make nonutilitarian decisions, by their own judgment of consequences. Of those subjects who would vote against the tax despite thinking that it would do more good than harm, 85% cited the unfairness of the tax as a reason for voting against it, and 75% cited the fact that the tax would harm some people.

Baron (1995) obtained further evidence for the do-no-harm principle applied to groups. Subjects were asked to put themselves in the position of a benevolent dictator of a small island consisting of equal numbers of bean growers and wheat growers. The decision was whether to accept or decline the final offer of the island's only trading partner, as a function of its effect on the incomes of the two groups equal in size. Most subjects would not accept offers that reduced the income of one group by more than a small amount in order to increase the income of the other group by a much larger amount. The same subjects judged the small reduction (that they rejected) to have less effect on the losers than the gain would have on the winners. In another study in the same series, many subjects would not recommend a vaccine that would reduce death rates a great deal in one group while increasing them a little in another group of the same size. The same subjects favored the vaccine more if both groups were affected equally, although the overall improvement was the same. The test to determine who was in which group was not available, so nobody would know which group they were in.

Subjects in these studies do not always distinguish between acts and omissions. The percentage of subjects showing this omission bias depends on the scenario, and ranges from zero (in unpublished data, where the omission is failing to prevent a crime after planning it with another person) to over 90% (Baron, 1992, Experiment 1, where failing to shoot one prisoner leads to the death of three others). Given this variability, it is difficult to argue that omission bias is a necessary part of our moral system. Like most heuristics that produce biases, the do-no-harm heuristic is not always used; people often think like utilitarians too. Heuristics of this sort are thus unlike optical illusions that everyone sees; they are, rather, simply rules that compete with other rules (Baron, 1994).

The individual and situational factors that govern this variability are largely unknown, but a few studies have attempted to isolate them. Haidt and Baron (1995) found that role relationships affect the judged seriousness of harmful omissions. For example, in one omission, a person selling a car fails to mention a potential problem to the buyer. Subjects judged this omission to be worse when the buyer is a friend rather than a stranger. When the seller actively lied about the problem, subjects judge the infraction to be almost equally bad regardless of who the buyer was. It seems that relationships such as friend or relative create responsibility like that created by a line of authority. Notice, however, the difficulty of finding a beneficial institution that is harmed by omitting to tell a stranger of the defect. One could argue that the institution is that of ``caveat emptor,'' but the asymmetry of information argues that the responsibility should, in a case like this, be on the seller. In the terms of Calabresi (1970), the seller is the ``least cost avoider'' of harm.

Baron and Miller (1994) examined cultural differences in judged seriousness of harmful omissions. Our subjects were college students in the U.S. and India. We used a scenario in which a person needed a bone-marrow transplant, and one person, the donor, was one of a relatively small number of compatible individuals. Indians were more likely to say that donation was morally required, even when the needy person was a stranger ``on the other side of the world'' from the donor. This finding agrees with other work showing that Indians see moral obligations where Americans do not see them (e.g., Miller, Bersoff, & Harwood, 1990). Indians and Americans were, however, sensitive to different manipulations of the basic scenario. When the needy person was the donor's cousin, Americans thought that the obligation to donate increased considerably. Many expressed outrage at the thought of not donating to one's own kin. Indians were less affected by family relationships. Indians were, however, more affected by proximity and requests. When the needy person lived in the same town or when he specifically requested a donation, Indians thought that obligation increased. Americans were less affected by these factors.

The most direct test of the act-omission distinction in this study was a comparison of two cases involving advice giving. In one case, a friend says nothing to the donor, knowing that the donor would donate only if the friend advises him to do so. In the other case, a friend advises the donor not to donate, knowing that the donor would follow whatever advice the friend gives. Both Indians and Americans thought that the donor's behavior was worse in the second case.

Although both cultures showed an omission bias, they have different attitudes about the situations in which harmful omissions are permissible, or, in other words, about the situations in which people are obliged to help others. These differences might be partially understood in terms of beliefs about social institutions and lines of authority. Indians, against the background of a greater sense of obligation, may be more respectful of government responsibility, so that they see being foreign as making a difference. Americans may see families as particularly important lines of authority. Such differences may lead to intercultural misunderstanding.

The scenarios about the friend giving advice to the donor revealed another cultural difference of some interest. Americans were more concerned with individual autonomy, the line of authority by which each person is responsible for her own decisions. Twenty-five percent of the Americans, vs. 12% of the Indians, referred to the donor's autonomy when asked to justify their responses to these items, e.g., ``It's the person's decision so the friend shouldn't intervene.'' By contrast, 62% of the Indians vs. 21% of the American's referred to the friend's positive responsibility to give advice, e.g., ``If a friend needs advice it is because he/she is uncertain. A true friend would not play on insecurities but encourage him to do what is good.''

The American concept of autonomy is part of their concept of individual rights. When Americans engage in moral discussions with other nations about human rights, they may do well to consider the fact that other cultures do not have quite the same concept. The idea of paternalism, of breaking the line of authority of individuals over themselves, may be more acceptable elsewhere. For utilitarians, this is indeed a contingent matter. If the ideal of autonomy is important to a culture, outsiders should be hesitant to weaken that culture's way of functioning. But if a culture gets along without it, it is not a fundamental moral concept that anyone needs to impose on them. The question of where to draw the line between paternalism and autonomy is a difficult one, and Americans may well be at one end of a continuum of answers.

An example: Free trade

Responsibilities to foreigners or those outside one's ethnic group are a major issue in the world today. Increasingly, problems of environmental externalities and of fairness in the distribution of goods require international solutions. Such problems include overfishing, refugees from violence and scarcity, destruction of forests and the species that inhabit them, the ozone layer of the atmosphere, population growth, food production, water resources, and possibly the release of greenhouse gasses. These considerations argue for more skepticism about the lines of authority of nation states, and greater responsibility for foreigners. Of course, utilitarians have always considered foreigners to be morally equal to compatriots, but the lines-of-authority argument has limited the obligations owed to them.

In this context, attitudes toward responsibility to foreigners are of some interest. I consider here only the question of obligation to help. I put aside those cases - all too common today - in which people contrive various justifications to inflict active harm on those outside their ethnic or national group.6

One context in which responsibility toward foreigners arises is that of trade. Reduction of trade barriers against poor countries is one way to promote their development. If the reduction is reciprocal, then it becomes politically feasible. Reduction of trade barriers does not interfere with the national lines of authority of those who are helped. It is a national decision with a positive externality. Of course, this is a complex issue. Even if a given trade agreement is a net improvement, we might do more good by holding out for a better agreement.

My hunch, however, is that some of the opponents of the recent North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) held basically nonutilitarian intuitions about the act-omission distinction and the obligation to foreigners. Although they would have judged that the consequences of NAFTA were better on the whole and that no better agreement was feasible - were it not for these intuitions - they opposed it because they did not want to be a party to harming some people in order to help others, or because they felt no moral responsibility to help Mexicans and other foreigners. When challenged with utilitarian arguments, these opponents may have come to believe that a better agreement was possible or that NAFTA was in fact harmful on the whole, but this was not this source of their original opposition.

I report here two questionnaire studies. One questionnaire was given to 44 university students in the weeks just before the U.S. congress voted on the NAFTA in late 1993, and one was given to 53 students in the weeks just after the vote. These questionnaires examined both the act-omission distinction and the question of responsibility to foreigners. The questionnaires are similar, so I here provide the questions of both, interleaved, with the items numbered 1 for the first questionnaire and 2 for the second. After each item, I provide basic statistics and some examples of written justifications, for items that requested these.

1. Do you think that the U.S. should accept NAFTA? (yes 12%, uncertain, 78%, no 10%)

2. Do you think it was good that the U.S. accepted NAFTA? (yes 40%, uncertain 40%, no 21%)

1. How do you think that NAFTA would affect jobs in the U.S. and Mexico? (help both 10%, hurt both 23% - many subjects answered separately for the two countries)

2. How do you think NAFTA will affect jobs in the U.S. over the long term? (more jobs 32%, uncertain or no effect 40%, fewer jobs 28%)

2. How do you think NAFTA will affect jobs in Mexico over the long term? (more jobs 75%, uncertain or no effect 21%, fewer jobs 4%)

Attitude toward NAFTA (in the first question) was correlated with beliefs about its effect on U.S. jobs (r=.53 across both studies, p=.000) but not at all with beliefs about its effect on Mexican jobs (r=.03).

2. How do you think NAFTA will affect total jobs in both countries combined over the long term? (more jobs 54.7%, uncertain or no effect 36%, fewer jobs 9%)

1. Suppose that a trade agreement would cause 10,000 job losses in the U.S. but prevent 11,000 job losses (by giving more business to exporters). It would have no other economic effects. Would you favor such an agreement? (yes 69%, no 31%)

2. Suppose that a trade agreement would cause 10,000 job losses in the U.S. but prevent 11,000 job losses in the U.S. over the same time period. (The jobs would be of the same type.) The agreement would have no other economic effects. Would you favor such an agreement? Why or why not? (In this case and all other cases, imagine that there is no doubt about these predictions. ...) (favor 60%, oppose 21%)

Opposition to this agreement correlated with opposition to NAFTA across both studies.7 This result suggests that some of the opposition to NAFTA was based on the do-no-harm heuristic. Even those who may have otherwise admitted that NAFTA would increase employment in the U.S. were reluctant to hurt some people in order to benefit others.

Most justifications for ``oppose'' responses showed clear evidence of the do-no-harm heuristic: ``No, because you would be giving someone else a job at your expense. Everyone has a fair share to their jobs.'' ``No, because 10,000 jobs would be lost even though 11,000 would be saved.'' ``No, because you still lose 10,000 jobs!'' A few answers showed a simpler form of omission bias, in which the default was favored in the absence of a very strong reason to change: ``No. It basically cancels itself out, so what's the point?'' ``You would only save 100 jobs [sic].'' One response was procedural: ``No. It is not fair for anyone to lose their jobs over a trade agreement that the government enacts without first getting input from the general public.''

Several subjects tried to rationalize their response by adding information not stated in the question, such as the possibility of better agreements or the possibility that the prevention of 11,000 job losses was uncertain (although the loss of 10,000 was certain). ``[No] because of the job losses .... There are other ways of dealing with the problem.'' ``I don't support job losses for any reason. I would much sooner find another way to prevent the 11,000 jobs from being lost.'' ``No, because 10,000 job losses is no comparison to 11,000 prevented job losses. There is no guarantee that that 11,000 would lose their jobs.'' Adding the stipulation that the results should be taken as given did not remove these responses.

2. Suppose that a trade agreement would cause 10,000 job losses in Mexico but prevent 11,000 job losses in Mexico over the same time period. (The jobs would be of the same type.) The agreement would have no other economic effects. Would you favor such an agreement? (favor 57%, oppose 24%)

Although most subjects saw this item (given only in the second study) as a repetition of the preceding item, 5 subjects opposed the change because they did not want to do anything that would affect Mexico: ``No. Mexico is of no concern.'' ``No. I'm a U.S.\ citizen, not a Mexican citizen.''

1. Suppose that a trade agreement would cause job gains in Mexico and job losses in the U.S., and no other effects. The gains in Mexico would be 10 times the losses in the U.S. The jobs in question would mean just as much to the Mexican workers as to the U.S. workers. Would you favor such an agreement? (yes 16%, no 84%)

2. [identical question] (favor 28%, oppose 70%)

Responses to this item correlated with opposition to NAFTA in the first question (r=.28, p=.006). Most of the opposition came from outright, admitted, nationalistic bias: ``No, because U.S. jobs are being taken away from the U.S. workers and more people will be unemployed in the U.S.'' ``No, because we should not enter an agreement where we lose jobs.'' ``Absolutely not. The purpose of American government is to provide protection ... for its citizens. While the reasoning may sound selfish and isolationist, American economic policy should protect American workers .... Any sacrifice of American workers, no matter what the benefit in Mexico, cannot be accepted. We must still protect ourselves and not always try go be the world's policemen and guardian.'' ``No, because, for me, Americans are far more than 10 times more important than Mexicans.''8

A few subjects raised more general questions of fairness: ``No - there should be an equal gain by both countries involved in the agreement or some gain by both countries ....'' ``No, because one country would benefit while another suffers.'' ``No. I don't think it is just to offer so many jobs to one country's people at the expense of another. ...''

A few other subjects raised questions of responsibility: ``No, ... because they should be responsible for their own jobs.'' ``No, it's not the U.S.'s responsibility to provide jobs for Mexico.'' ``No, because the U.S. can't afford to lose no more jobs. They need to help themselves.'' Such arguments are more easily understood as applications of a simple heuristic of limited responsibility than as an application of the utilitarian argument for national lines of authority.

Subjects who favored the agreement usually did so on utilitarian grounds: ``Thinking globally, or about the whole picture, yes, the agreement would be better. This is because more people would have jobs.'' ``Yes. Here I see the larger continent or world a general welfare unit. ...'' A few of these subjects, however, favored the agreement because of side effects such as reduced immigration from Mexico to the U.S.

1. Do you think that such an agreement would be better on the whole? That is, would it be better on the whole to have such an agreement or not? [In the first study, subjects who favored the agreement in the preceding item were told not to answer this question and all subsequent ones.] (better 34%, worse 54%)

2. Do you think that such an agreement (creating 10 Mexican jobs for every U.S. job lost) would be better on the whole? (yes 45%, no 32%)

Attitude toward this item (in study 2) was considerably more positive than attitude toward the agreement in the preceding question about whether subjects would favor the agreement.9 Many of the nationalistic subjects were therefore admittedly nonconsequentialist in their nationalistic bias.

Most subjects who said no took ``better on the whole'' to mean ``better for both nations,'' e.g., ``I think it would be better for the Mexicans , who would have a major increase in the employment rate and probably a boom in their economy. However, I don't think it would benefit the U.S. at all. So I don't think it would be better on the whole.'' Those who thought the agreement was better on the whole were about equally divided between those who simply referred to the greater number of jobs and those who referred to beneficial side effects. Some subjects (counted as neither agreeing nor disagreeing) were unwilling to make a holistic judgment based on a loss to some and a gain to others, e.g., ``Would be better for who[m]? It would be better for the families with the additional income, but what about the families where the job was lost?'' ``Maybe for the Mexicans it would benefit but for us we would be at a loss.''

A couple of responses mentioned other moral issues such as fairness and responsibility: ``Yes. Mexico is in need of a boost in the economy more than the U.S. Helping one's neighbor that is in need, especially when you have more than enough yourself, is being compassionate.'' ``No, because the U.S.\ through Capitalism created a strong country. By creating 10 jobs in Mexico at the expense of 1 U.S. job is allowing a weaker form of government to exist and sponge off a stronger one.''

1. Do you think that it would be morally better to accept such an agreement or reject it? (accept 47%, reject 37%)

2. [identical question] (accept 45%, reject 41%)

The response to this question in study 2, like that to the preceding ``better on the whole'' question, was more favorable toward the agreement than was the response to the initial question about the agreement itself (p=.005, Wilcoxon test). Subjects' initial responses to the agreement (in which 10 Mexicans gain jobs for every U.S. loss) therefore went against their own moral judgments as well as against their judgments of overall consequences. These two judgments (morality and consequences) did not always agree, but they did not differ consistently in one direction or the other.

Most subjects who thought morality favored the agreement based on the total number of jobs in both countries, e.g., ``Morality demands that we accept such a deal. Any other course of action would suggest that an American's desires are up to 10 times more important than a Mexican's.''

Subjects had a great variety of reasons for thinking that the agreement was immoral, however, e.g.: ``Accepting it would be insensitive to the suffering of those who would lose their jobs.'' ``... for me, it wouldn't be morally better because I would feel responsible for the loss of jobs to hardworking Americans.'' ``... reject it because, although you may be helping others with the creating of more jobs, you would hurt the ones who have lost jobs, which is wrong.'' ``Of course it would be morally better to help ten Mexicans at the expense of one American, but I think that this country has a duty to look out for the interests of its citizens first.'' ``Reject. We must look out for the U.S.A. first.'' ``We should look out for ourselves.'' ``Mexicans are losing nothing but gaining jobs. Americans are losing jobs but gaining nothing. Fair, right? WRONG!'' ``... reject it because, by accepting it, problems would be created in the U.S. (more unemployment).'' ``Absolutely not .... The U.S. was created by U.S. citizens. They have a moral right to exist for themselves and not be an altruistic sacrifice for any and all people with wants.'' Notice that some of these reasons referred to role-specific obligations of a presumed decision maker rather than overall consequences.

No justifications simply asserted that U.S. citizens counted more than Mexicans. (Nor did any justification clearly say this in response to the previous question.) It appears, then, that nationalistic bias is morally based on role-specific obligations of citizens and political leaders rather than on inherent moral worth. Some subjects gave answers for both roles, e.g., ``In terms of the constituents you represent, no. In terms of the world ..., accept it.'' Political leaders may well have a line of authority that requires them to look out for their constituents first, but it is more difficult to see why citizens, as individuals, should also have this commitment. If they do, who looks out for international externalities? People may transfer the lines-of-authority argument from political leaders to the citizens who elect them.

Some subjects avoided answering this question, often taking a relativistic stance toward morality, e.g.: ``Depends on which side you're on.'' ``I do not feel that there is a moral judgment to be made on such a policy. However, morally, for all mankind, it is an almost rhetorical question. Of course, one would think that you must accept it. However, tell that to the American worker who worked hard all of his life and now cannot provide for his family since his job was given to a 19 year old Mexican. The Lord Jesus asks us to give of ourselves, but I don't think He would ask me to shoot myself in order to provide someone with a heart transplant. So, therefore, although it may seem as if there is, I don't believe that there is a moral judgment to be made in such a situation.''

1. If you were living in a third country, neither Mexico nor the U.S., would you favor the agreement or oppose it? (76% favor, 3% oppose)

The strong approval of the agreement here supports the view that most opposition is role-specific.

1. Suppose that the jobs created were in Ohio and the jobs lost were in Pennsylvania. There would be ten times as many jobs created in Ohio as were lost in Pennsylvania, and no other effects. ... (favor 66%, oppose 26%)

2. Suppose that all the jobs created were in one state of the U.S.\ and all the jobs lost were in another state of the U.S. There would be ten times as many jobs created as lost, and no other effects. (accept 62%, reject 32%)

These questions were designed to encourage subjects to rethink their answers to previous questions. Most rejected the analogy, e.g., ``... The boundaries between states are very different than borders between countries.'' One subject accepted the analogy: ``This agreement would hurt Pennsylvania, but it would greatly help the economy of the whole country, so I would support it. I realize the implications of this last question, and it makes a valid point: If different countries could work together and look out for the benefits of the whole world, as the states of America are united, then everyone would benefit.''

Opposition was based on the do-no-harm principle and on fairness: ``I would oppose it. ..., I don't think one should gain from the loss of others.'' ``Oppose it. The job employment should be dispersed.'' ``... Things have to be kept even.'' ``... It wouldn't be fair for the state with the job losses while the state with the job gains flourished.'' ``It doesn't seem fair to put one state in jeopardy for the benefit of another. ...''

2. Suppose that all the jobs created and all the jobs lost were in the same state of the U.S. There would be ten times as many jobs created as lost, and no other effects. Would you favor such an agreement or oppose it? (accept 81%, reject 11%)

The remaining opposition was based mostly on the do-no-harm principle, e.g.: ``Oppose it because it would hinder some people.''


I have argued that we would adopt a sophisticated form of utilitarianism, one that takes account of existing social arrangements, if we were not biased by our prior moral intuitions. These intuitions are themselves approximately utilitarian in many situations. Many of them are based on principles that were invented, I think, to deal with particular bad consequences. But the principles may have applied to the case at hand and not to other cases. Thus, an injunction against harm does not apply to cases in which harm is justified by greater good, from a utilitarian perspective. And respect for the lines of authority of individuals or national governments may be unwarranted or misapplied in some situations, such as trade agreements.

This argument has two kinds of implications for the topic of this book, about which I have said very little so far, namely ethics and business. First, some of the opposition to government programs that are good for business are based on nonutilitarian intuitions of the sort I have discussed. Free trade is an example. Many people are reluctant to harm some in order to help others, and any kind of change does this. Similar arguments could be made about other changes that would affect business, such as basing risk regulation on an analysis of costs and benefits.

Second, the lines-of-responsibility argument may be overused by those inside of corporations, just as it is overused by their opponents. Corporations faced with demands to be more socially responsible in one way or another often argue that it is not their responsibility to do good but rather to make a profit for their shareholders. From a utilitarian point of view, the stockholders are indeed relevant, but they are not the only ones affected by corporate policies. When necessary, their interests may be sacrificed for the greater good of others, although, obviously, not so much as to cause greater harms (such as weakening the overall confidence of investors).

Of course, too much of this will induce the stockholders to bail out. The long-run sustainability of the corporation must also be considered, as well as the more general willingness of investors to invest at all, and these considerations make us worry more about the stockholders than we would if we were assured of eternal corporate life and investor confidence. And if the corporation is doing good by satisfying peoples true values (rather than, say, satisfying their addictions that go against these values), it is better for the corporation to grow, so that it can do more good. For a utilitarian, however, these are considerations that can be balanced against other considerations, such as the benefit to others. On the other side of the balance are factors like corporate reputation (Orts, 1995). These factors can make corporate altruism worthwhile in the long run, even at the short-run expense of the stockholders.

A good example of all these points is the pharmaceutical industry. This industry - through research, development, and marketing of products - has done enormous amounts of good. It has also suffered from lawsuits against some of its most beneficial products, those given to healthy people, such as birth-control products and vaccines. Many of these lawsuits were, arguably, based on nonutilitarian intuitions related to the distinction between acts and omissions (Baron & Ritov, 1993). For example, the makers of the Salk polio vaccine were never sued for failing to prevent polio, but the makers of the Sabin (oral) vaccine were sued many times for causing it, even though the total risk was smaller with the Sabin.

It is difficult to second-guess the extent to which the industry has lived up to its responsibility. It is true that research and development have decreased on birth-control products (Djerassi, 1989), vaccines (Huber, 1988), and especially medicines useful for treating or preventing diseases of the world's poor (``Researchers fret over neglect of 600 million patients,'' Science, 256, p. 1135, 1992). How much of this reduction was necessary to preserve long-term financial strength is difficult to judge. On the other hand, we have seen some outstanding examples of corporate altruism, such as the donation of a treatment for river blindness by Merck, which realized that the millions of people who could benefit were simply too poor to pay (Hanson, 1991).

Some would argue that utilitarian reasoning is dangerous, even if it is correct, because it goes against simple rules of ethics. I'm not sure those rules are much followed anyway. If the other arguments I have made here are correct, then a utilitarian analysis would be useful both for those in corporations and those outside of them in dealing with the problems of the world.


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Baron, J. & Jurney, J. (1993). Norms against voting for coerced reform. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 347-355.

Baron, J. & Miller, J. G. (1994). Differences between Indian and U.S. college students in judged obligation to help others in need. Manuscript.

Baron, J. & Ritov, I. (1993). Intuitions about penalties and compensation in the context of tort law. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 7, 17-33.

Baron, J. & Ritov, I. (1994). Reference points and omission bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 59, 475-498.

Calabresi, G. (1970). The costs of accidents: A legal and economic analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Djerassi, C. (1989). The bitter pill. Science, 245, 356-361.

Haidt, J. & Baron, J. (1995). Social roles and the moral judgment of acts and omissions. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Hanson, K. (1991). We must find our business heroes. Executive Excellence, 8, 5-6.

Huber, P. W. (1988). Liability: The legal revolution and its consequences. New York: Basic Books.

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1This research was supported by N.S.F. grants SES91-09763 and SBR92-23015. Send correspondence to Jonathan Baron, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 3815 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6196, or (e-mail)

2I distinguish morality and ethics. Morality concerns the basic principles by which we justify our decisions to each other. Ethics concerns more limited, culture-specific codes that play a similar role. Ethics is ultimately justified by morality, but it also takes into account the facts about institutions and their function in a given society.

3I have presented this argument at greater length in Baron (1993).

4I use the term ``value'' in the sense of Keeney (1993) and Anderson (1993), and I use the terms ``goals,'' ``interests,'' and ``objectives'' for the same concept. These are not mere desires, but rather desires that we endorse and accept as criteria for the evaluation of states of affairs.

5Similarly, people who consult their intuitions will decide that rights and duties can override consequences. Usually, honoring rights and duties will lead to the best consequences, so the issue does not come up. When they do not, we must ask where the authority of these intuitions comes from, for following them harms people by bringing about worse consequences than could be achieved otherwise.

6I suspect, however, that part of the problem here is the result of similar nonutilitarian understandings of punishment and retribution, as well as self-deception about one's own goodness and the badness of others.

7The correlation (r=.27, p=.018) remained significant (p=.003) when the U.S.-jobs item was partialled out.

8This response, and a couple of others like it, remind me of Rabbi Yaacov Perrin's statement in his eulogy for Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who was beaten to death after killing 40 Palestinian worshipers: ``One million Arabs is not worth a Jewish fingernail'' (New York Times, Feb. 28, 1994). Of course, that is an extreme view on the continuum of nationalistic sentiment.

9This was significant at p=.002 (Wilcoxon test), counting both increased agreement, from 28% to 45%, and reduced disagreement, from 70% to 32%.

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