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“But he’s my brother”: The impact of family obligation on moral judgments and decisions


We created practical moral dilemmas for which participants imagined witnessing a transgression by a target person. The identity of the transgressor was manipulated to be either a stranger or the participant's brother. In Experiment 1, whether the target person committed a violation was left ambiguous. Participants made factual (how strongly they believe the target person actually committed a transgression) and unethicality judgments regarding the incident, and rated their willingness to report the transgressor to the police. Given ambiguity (Experiment 1), participants interpreted the facts in favor of their brother, but not in favor of a stranger. This interpretation led to moral judgments and willingness to report that favored family over strangers, while creating overall coherence in reasoning. In Experiment 2, we eliminated the ambiguity of the factual situation so that the possibility of achieving coherence between unethicality of an act and leniency toward a family member was blocked. Nonetheless, participants were less willing to report their brother to the police. Experiment 3 replicated the findings of the first two experiments within an integrated study design. Results from path analyses indicated that the factual judgment depended on factual understanding of an event, but willingness to report depended on identity of the target (i.e., brother vs. stranger), even at the cost of reduced coherence in reasoning. Moral decisions are thus strongly influenced by agent-relative obligations, such as duty to protect a family member.

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