There is widespread moral disagreement in contemporary societies. This project explores the metaphysical, epistemological, and practical implications of moral disagreement.

In deliberative polls a large number of people with different views come together to deliberate over a particular policy issue. For instance, whether the best response to crime is to put more people in jail and to build more prisons.

  • Prior to the poll, participants are given information about the issue and are rigorously vetted to ensure neutrality.
  • Participants deliberate with one another in small groups about the issue in question for one or two days and have a chance to ask questions of those with expertise on the topic.
  • Participants are anonymously polled about their views on the issue both before and after the deliberation.

We conducted two events inspired by deliberative polls, which followed the methodology of deliberative polls closely. Unlike deliberative polls that have been undertaken in the past, our events were on moral issues rather than policy issues.  We chose two topics: The trolley problem and Eating animals. One hundred and seventy-eight participants took part.

The trolley problem

In the trolley deliberative event we asked participants about the switch and footbridge trolley cases, which are important cases for discussions in contemporary moral philosophy. In the switch case there is a runaway trolley or tram on a track. If it keeps going down the track it will run over and kill five innocent people who are tied to the tracks. You are next to the track and you can switch the trolley onto a side-track so that it runs over and kills only one innocent person rather than five. Should you switch the tram onto the side-track? The footbridge case is similar but in this case there’s no switch and no side-track. Instead, you’re on a bridge. Next to you is a very heavy man. The man is just heavy enough such that if you push him off the bridge and onto the track, his weight will stop the tram from running over and killing the five innocent people but he will be killed in the process. Should you push the heavy man onto the track to save the five?

At the group level there was little change of judgment from pre- to post-deliberation.  For instance, prior to deliberation 53 per cent of participants said that we shouldn’t push the heavy man off the footbridge and 33 per cent said we should, post-deliberation 54 per cent said we shouldn’t push him and 39 per cent said we should. These changes aren’t statistically significant. However, there was statistically significant change in individual participants’ judgments. For instance, the main question about the footbridge gave participants only three options: we should push, we shouldn’t push, I don’t know.  Thirty-nine per cent of participants changed their view from one of these three options to another. Even though the overall percentage of participants signing on to a option stayed the same, many of our participants changed their views after the deliberation. These changes however, evened out at the group level.

Eating animals

We found a similar story in our deliberative event about eating animals. We asked participants the following question: “Assume that human beings do not require meat to be healthy. Assume that livestock animals feel pain and pleasure. Given these assumptions, and setting aside concerns about the environmental effects of animal agriculture, in your view, is it morally acceptable under normal circumstances for us to eat meat?”

Participants could take one of five positions in response: (i) there’s nothing morally wrong with eating meat in normal circumstances; (ii) it’s morally better to abstain from eating meat, but eating meat in normal circumstances is a morally acceptable choice; (iii) eating meat in normal circumstances is morally unacceptable, but eating meat in normal circumstances is not very seriously wrong; (iv) eating meat in normal circumstances is very seriously wrong; (v) I don’t know.

As in the trolley deliberative event, there was no statistically significant change of views at the group level from pre- to post-deliberation:

31 per cent held (i) or (ii) pre-deliberation, 32 per cent post
57 per cent held (iii) or (iv) pre-deliberation, 59 per cent post

But 42 per cent of people moved from one of these five options to another. As in the trolley event, the changes in views at the individual level cancelled each other out at the group level.

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Moral disagreements experimental study facilitators and research team

Moral disagreements experimental study facilitators and research team.


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