Samuel Johnson and Jaye Ahn
Originally posted September 10, 2019
We are all saints and sinners: Some of our actions benefit other people, while other actions harm people. How do people balance moral rights against moral wrongs when evaluating others’ actions? Across 9 studies, we contrast the predictions of three conceptions of intuitive morality—outcome- based (utilitarian), act-based (deontologist), and person-based (virtue ethics) approaches. Although good acts can partly offset bad acts—consistent with utilitarianism—they do so incompletely and in a manner relatively insensitive to magnitude, but sensitive to temporal order and the match between who is helped and harmed. Inferences about personal moral character best predicted blame judgments, explaining variance across items and across participants. However, there was modest evidence for both deontological and utilitarian processes too. These findings contribute to conversations about moral psychology and person perception, and may have policy implications.
These studies begin to map out the principles governing how the mind combines rights and wrongs to form summary judgments of blameworthiness. Moreover, these principles are explained by inferences about character, which also explain differences across scenarios and participants. These results overall buttress person-based accounts of morality (Uhlmann et al., 2014), according to which morality serves primarily to identify and track individuals likely to be cooperative and trustworthy social partners in the future.
These results also have implications for moral psychology beyond third-party judgments. Moral behavior is motivated largely by its expected reputational consequences, thus studying the psychology of third-party reputational judgments is key for understanding people’s behavior when they have opportunities to perform licensing or offsetting acts. For example, theories of moral self-licensing (Merritt et al., 2010) disagree over whether licensing occurs due to moral credits (i.e., having done good, one can now “spend” the moral credit on a harm) versus moral credentials (i.e., having done good, later bad acts are reframed as less blameworthy).
The research is here.