Instincts Regarding Determinism and Moral Responsibility

Shaun Nichols and Joshua Kolbe describe in a paper, Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions (PDF), several studies aimed at delineating common intuitions regarding the (in)compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism. Having one universe, universe A, described in which everything, including human decisions, is completely caused by the foregoing events, so that they cannot happen differently than they do, and another universe, universe B, in which human decisions are not completely caused by foregoing events, and could be different than they are, the vast majority (90%) say that the second universe is more like the one in which we live.

The participants are further asked either an abstract or a general question regarding the possibility of moral responsibility in universe A:

Of those asked the abstract question, "In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?   Yes    No", 86% responded that it is not possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for what they do.

Of those presented with the concrete scenario and question, "In Universe A, Bill stabs his wife and children to death so that he can be with his secretary. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for killing his family?", 50% responded that it is possible.

Presented with the even more detailed scenario, "In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and 3 children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family. Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?", 72% responded that he is fully morally responsible!

The authors suggest that these contradictory intuitions suggest that the greater affective reaction to the concrete scenario.

Now, an alternative explanation would be that it was simply the concreteness of the scenarios that led to the different responses. The more concrete ways that the presents see in which the actions proceeded from Bill's intellect and will, the more likely they are to respond that he is or could be fully morally responsible.

In an attempt to exclude this possibility, the authors made another experiment in which all participants were presented with concrete situations. Some were asked:

As he has done many times in the past, Bill stalks and rapes a stranger. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for raping the stranger?

Others were asked:

As he has done many times in the past, Mark arranges to cheat on his taxes. Is it possible that Mark is fully morally responsible for cheating on his taxes?

Under the stipulation that these persons are supposed to exist in universe B, in which human decisions are not entirely caused by foregoing events, almost all responded that the persons could be fully morally responsible for their actions (95% responded that Bill could be fully morally responsible for the rape, and 89% that Mark could be fully morally responsible for cheating on his taxes).

Under the stipulation that these persons are supposed to exist in universe A, in which human decisions are entirely caused by foregoing events, nearly all responded that Mark could not be fully morally responsible for cheating on his taxes; only 23% answered that he could be fully morally responsible. 64%, on the other hand,  responded that Bill could be fully morally responsible.

The authors argue from this study that the concreteness of the question or scenario is not responsible for the different responses, but the kind of affective response elicited by the scenario.

It is an interesting study, and doubtless affect plays in a role in the responses, but there does occur to me another possible factor that the authors do not consider, namely that the participants' instinct is that, in fact, the decision to cheat on one's taxes, because it does not directly concern fundamental human goods, is only secondarily a moral matter and can be determined by circumstances and external causes, while the decision to rape someone, being more directly concerned with fundamental human good, cannot be determined by circumstances and external causes. Such an instinct would explain the results: since the persons have an intuition that the decision to rape cannot be a non-moral action, and also a belief that in a deterministic universe all actions are non-moral, their responses are close to 50-50; the persons asked about Mark have an intuition that the decision to cheat on taxes can be a non-moral action, though in normal circumstances it is a moral action, and so, since there is no conflict with their belief that in a deterministic universe full moral responsibility is impossible, the majority answer that Mark cannot be fully morally responsible.

One thought on “Instincts Regarding Determinism and Moral Responsibility”

  1. If you first explained to people the difference between action responsibility and moral responsibility, then argued the point that the mind is a deterministic system and the sense of moral responsibility is therefore misguided, you will get a completely different result. The (in)compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism is an intuition that can be adjusted with information and is therefore itself a indication of determinism at work.

    Philippe Ingels

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