Moral Outrage and Opposition to Harm Reduction

30 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2012

Date Written: April 5, 2012


Three public opinion studies examined public attitudes toward prevalence reduction (PR; reducing the number of people engaging in an activity) and harm reduction (HR; reducing the harm associated with an activity) across a wide variety of domains. Studies 1 and 2 were telephone surveys of California adults’ views on PR and HR strategies for a wide range of risk domains (heroin, alcoholism, tobacco, skateboarding, teen sex, illegal immigration, air pollution, and fast food). “Moral outrage” items (immoral, disgusting, irresponsible, dangerous) predicted preference for PR over HR, with disgust the most important predictor. In contrast, preferences were not predicted by whether the risk behavior was common, no one else’s business, or harmless. Study 3 explored whether there are domains where liberals might reject HR. A sample of liberal students preferred HR>PR for heroin, but PR>HR for ritual female circumcision; path analysis suggested that this reversal was explained by moral outrage rather than consequentialist judgments of harm to self and harm to others.

Keywords: vice, harm reduction, morality, disgust

Suggested Citation

MacCoun, Robert, Moral Outrage and Opposition to Harm Reduction (April 5, 2012). UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2035001. Available at SSRN: or

Robert MacCoun (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-721-7031 (Phone)

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