Morality can seem simple: truth is good, lies are bad; peace is good, violence is bad. We typically rely on certain dichotomies.

But not always. For example, sometimes we lie to protect someone’s feelings, and it may feel right. Suddenly, morality doesn’t look so simple.

In difficult cases where our habitual dichotomies don’t seem to fit, we fall back on an intuitive moral understanding that parses the stakes, and leaves us with a justified course of action. But sometimes that intuitive understanding doesn’t land on a clear moral winner. We can’t figure out what’s right.

New research will help when those moments of confusion arrive: A study published in the journal PLOS One reveals that even the most difficult moral judgment calls can be made by asking the same three questions. These are the questions we often intuitively ask ourselves, but by putting them into words and clarifying the amount of weight we need to give each answer based on the stakes of the moral dilemma, the study gives us a step-by-step guide for figuring out what’s right.

1 – Consider the agent

The agent, according to the study, is the character or intent of the person who is doing something. The study found this was the least important factor in determining the appropriate moral response to a situation, regardless of how high the stakes are. So, start with this question to get your bearings for how to approach the next two questions, but don’t get hung up on the motivations behind your dilemma.

2 – Examine the deed

By that, we mean think about the action in question, whether that’s lying, stealing or shirking a responsibility. According to the study, in situations where the stakes of your moral dilemma are low — for example, your coworker might be briefly annoyed or embarrassed that you admitted she did indeed have something in her teeth, but she won’t be deeply affected — your response to this question is the most important part of determining the moral course of action. But to make sure the stakes are in fact low, it’s important that you consider the third question, as well.

3 – Weigh the consequences

If the moral question you are weighing has high stakes, then the consequences of your action are the most significant part of determining morality, according to the study. So if telling your very sensitive coworker about the food in her teeth will affect her strongly, or if you’re deciding whether to lie to your partner about a problem in your relationship, then determine the consequences of your choice and weigh those more heavily than the first two questions in choosing what to do. All three questions should get an answer, but if your course of action has the potential to hurt someone (or to hurt you), consequences have the final word.

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  • Nora Battelle

    Multimedia Staff Writer at Thrive

    Nora Battelle is a writer from New York City. Her work has been published on the Awl, the Hairpin, and the LARB blog, and she's written for podcast and film. At Swarthmore College, she studied English and French literature and graduated with Highest Honors. She's fascinated by language, culture, the internet, and all the small choices that can help us thrive.