Discussion paper

DP18779 Ends versus Means: Kantians, Utilitarians, and Moral Decisions

Choosing what is morally right can be based on the consequences (ends) resulting from the decision – the Consequentialist view – or on the conformity of the means involved with some overarching notion of duty – the Deontological view. Using a series of experiments, we investigate the overall prevalence and the consistency of consequentialist and deontological decision-making, when these two moral principles come into conflict. Our design includes a real-stakes version of the classical trolley dilemma, four novel games that induce ends-versus-means tradeoffs, and a rule-following task. These six main games are supplemented with six classical self-versus-other choice tasks, allowing us to relate consequential/deontological behavior to standard measures of prosociality. Across the six main games, we find a sizeable prevalence (20 to 44%) of nonconsequentialist
choices by subjects, but no evidence of stable individual preference types across situations. In particular, trolley behavior predicts no other ends-versus-means choices; which moral principle prevails appears to be context-dependent. In contrast, we find a substantial level of consistency across self-versus-other decisions, but individuals’ degree of prosociality is unrelated to how they choose in ends-versus-means tradeoffs.


Bénabou, R, A Falk and L Henkel (2024), ‘DP18779 Ends versus Means: Kantians, Utilitarians, and Moral Decisions‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 18779. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp18779