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Sunday, May 9, 2021

For Whom Does Determinism Undermine Moral Responsibility? Surveying the Conditions for Free Will Across Cultures

I. Hannikainen, et. al.
Front. Psychol., 05 November 2019


Philosophers have long debated whether, if determinism is true, we should hold people morally responsible for their actions since in a deterministic universe, people are arguably not the ultimate source of their actions nor could they have done otherwise if initial conditions and the laws of nature are held fixed. To reveal how non-philosophers ordinarily reason about the conditions for free will, we conducted a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic survey (N = 5,268) spanning twenty countries and sixteen languages. Overall, participants tended to ascribe moral responsibility whether the perpetrator lacked sourcehood or alternate possibilities. However, for American, European, and Middle Eastern participants, being the ultimate source of one’s actions promoted perceptions of free will and control as well as ascriptions of blame and punishment. By contrast, being the source of one’s actions was not particularly salient to Asian participants. Finally, across cultures, participants exhibiting greater cognitive reflection were more likely to view free will as incompatible with causal determinism. We discuss these findings in light of documented cultural differences in the tendency toward dispositional versus situational attributions.


At the aggregate level, we found that participants blamed and punished agents whether they only lacked alternate possibilities (Miller and Feltz, 2011) or whether they also lacked sourcehood (Nahmias et al., 2005; Nichols and Knobe, 2007). Thus, echoing early findings, laypeople did not take alternate possibilities or sourcehood as necessary conditions for free will and moral responsibility.

Yet, our study also revealed a dramatic cultural difference: Throughout the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, participants viewed the perpetrator with sourcehood (in the CI scenario) as freer and more morally responsible than the perpetrator without sourcehood (in the AS scenario). Meanwhile, South and East Asian participants evaluated both perpetrators in a strikingly similar way. We interpreted these results in light of cultural variation in dispositional versus situational attributions (Miller, 1984; Morris and Peng, 1994; Choi et al., 1999; Chiu et al., 2000). From a dispositionist perspective, participants may be especially attuned to the absence of sourcehood: When an agent is the source of their action, people may naturally conjure dispositionist explanations that refer to her goals, desires (e.g., because “she wanted a new life”) or character (e.g., because “she is ruthless”). In contrast, when actions result from a causal chain originating at the beginning of the universe, explanations of this sort – implying sourcehood – seem particularly unsatisfactory and incomplete. In contrast, from a situationist perspective, whether the agent could be seen as the source of her action may be largely irrelevant: Instead, a situationist may think of others’ behavior as the product of extrinsic pressures – from momentary upheaval, to the way they were raised, social norms or fate – and thus perceive both agents, in the CI and AS cases, as similar in matters of free will and moral responsibility.