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When does the law persuade us about what is right or wrong – and when does it not? On topics ranging from racial equality to abortion to same-sex marriage, historians have debated and puzzled over the law’s persuasive force on our collective moral intuitions. Meanwhile, other scholars have sought out individual-level insights into the psychology of law’s persuasion, under the microscope of controlled experiments.

This chapter presents evidence of the law’s influence on our moral intuitions in a survey experiment based on a classic dilemma known as the “trolley problem,” in which someone must make a choice about whether to turn a runaway train, actively harming one person but saving more people by doing so. This sacrificial dilemma is a familiar reference in legal and policy discussions of harm–harm trade-offs, or “tragic choices. Such a scenario is also well-suited for studying the law’s possible influence, as it is not an easy moral call, and “[e]specially under conditions of uncertainty, people look for information in their environment that provide credible clues for making judgments. In the trolley problem, such uncertainty occurs not because our moral intuitions are weak or amorphous; rather, it is because forceful intuitions are set in contest: we must save more people, and yet we must not actively cause anyone harm.


Law | Law and Society


This material has been published in "The Cambridge Handbook of Marketing and the Law", edited by Jacob E. Gersen and Joel H. Steckel. This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use.