Should You Sacrifice Your Constituents? Moral Dilemmas and the Evaluation of Politicians


Adhering to high ethical standards and being morally upright might sometimes be incompatible with governing effectively. In some situations, politicians must decide between adopting a utilitarian decision (a decision that, even if it contravenes moral principles, leads to the optimal outcome and the maximization of aggregate welfare) or a deontological decision (a decision guided by the idea that there are moral standards that should never be violated, even if violating them would lead to a maximization of aggregate welfare). In this paper I analyze if the way in which politicians react to this type of dilemmas is consequential for how citizens evaluate them. The empirical analyses draw on a survey experiment based on a sacrificial moral dilemma applied to a political crisis. The experiment was included in a survey with 1,000 respondents fielded in Spain. Through this survey experiment I examine participants’ evaluations of a fictitious politician that in the context of a terrorist threat makes either a utilitarian judgement and decision (it is better to save 50 people, even if it involves sacrificing 10 innocent people) or a deontological judgement and decision (purposefully sacrificing 10 innocent people is just morally wrong, even if it saves 50 people). The results of the experiment indicate that politicians who adopt a deontological decision are more trusted and better evaluated, but the effect of adopting either a deontological or utilitarian decision on the evaluations of politicians is moderated by individuals’ left-right ideology.

Read the blogpost summarizing some results here.

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