Johnson, S. G. B., & Ahn, J.
(2019, September 10).
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.
Here is the beginning of the General Discussion:
Much of our behavior is tinged with shades of morality. How third-parties judge those behaviors has numerous social consequences: People judged as behaving immorally can be socially ostracized, less interpersonally attractive, and less able to take advantage of win–win agreements. Indeed, our desire to avoid ignominy and maintain our moral reputations motivate much of our social behavior. But on the other hand, moral judgment is subject to a variety of heuristics and biases that appear to violate normative moral theories and lead to inconsistency (Bartels, Bauman, Cushman, Pizarro, & McGraw, 2015; Sunstein, 2005). Despite the dominating influence of moral judgment in everyday social cognition, little is known about how judgments of individual acts scale up into broader judgments about sequences of actions, such as moral offsetting (a morally bad act motivates a subsequent morally good act) or self-licensing (a morally good act motivates a subsequent morally bad act). That is, we need a theory of karmic accounting—how rights and wrongs add up in moral judgment.