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Monday, November 15, 2021

On Defining Moral Enhancement: A Clarificatory Taxonomy

Carl Jago
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 95, July 2021, 104145


In a series of studies, we ask whether and to what extent the base rate of a behavior influences associated moral judgment. Previous research aimed at answering different but related questions are suggestive of such an effect. However, these other investigations involve injunctive norms and special reference groups which are inappropriate for an examination of the effects of base rates per se. Across five studies, we find that, when properly isolated, base rates do indeed influence moral judgment, but they do so with only very small effect sizes. In another study, we test the possibility that the very limited influence of base rates on moral judgment could be a result of a general phenomenon such as the fundamental attribution error, which is not specific to moral judgment. The results suggest that moral judgment may be uniquely resilient to the influence of base rates. In a final pair of studies, we test secondary hypotheses that injunctive norms and special reference groups would inflate any influence on moral judgments relative to base rates alone. The results supported those hypotheses.

From the General Discussion

In multiple experiments aimed at examining the influence of base rates per se, we found that base rates do indeed influence judgments, but the size of the effect we observed was very small. We considered that, in
discovering moral judgments’ resilience to influence from base rates, we may have only rediscovered a general tendency, such as the fundamental attribution error, whereby people discount situational factors. If
so, this tendency would then also apply broadly to non-moral scenarios. We therefore conducted another study in which our experimental materials were modified so as to remove the moral components. We found a substantial base-rate effect on participants’ judgments of performance regarding non-moral behavior. This finding suggests that the resilience to base rates observed in the preceding studies is unlikely the result of amore general tendency, and may instead be unique to moral judgment.

The main reasons why we concluded that the results from the most closely related extant research could not answer the present research question were the involvement in those studies of injunctive norms and
special reference groups. To confirm that these factors could inflate any influence of base rates on moral judgment, in the final pair of studies, we modified our experiments so as to include them. Specifically, in one study, we crossed prescriptive and proscriptive injunctive norms with high and low base rates and found that the impact of an injunctive norm outweighs any impact of the base rate. In the other study, we found that simply mentioning, for example, that there were some good people among those who engaged in a high base-rate behavior resulted in a large effect on moral judgment; not only on judgments of the target’s character, but also on judgments of blame and wrongness.