Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Friday, December 24, 2021

It's not what you did, it's what you could have done

Bernhard, R. M., LeBaron, H., & Phillips, J. S. 
(2021, November 8).


We are more likely to judge agents as morally culpable after we learn they acted freely rather than under duress or coercion. Interestingly, the reverse is also true: Individuals are more likely to be judged to have acted freely after we learn that they committed a moral violation. Researchers have argued that morality affects judgments of force by making the alternative actions the agent could have done instead appear comparatively normal, which then increases the perceived availability of relevant alternative actions. Across four studies, we test the novel predictions of this account. We find that the degree to which participants view possible alternative actions as normal strongly predicts their perceptions that an agent acted freely. This pattern holds both for perceptions of descriptive normality (whether the actions are unusual) and prescriptive normality (whether the actions are good) and persists even when what is actually done is held constant. We also find that manipulating the prudential value of alternative actions or the degree to which alternatives adhere to social norms, has a similar effect to manipulating whether the actions or their alternatives violate moral norms, and that both effects are explained by changes in the perceived normality of the alternatives. Finally, we even find that evaluations of both the prescriptive and descriptive normality of alternative actions explains force judgments in response to moral violations. Together, these results suggest that across contexts, participants’ force judgments depend not on the morality of the actual action taken, but on the normality of possible alternatives. More broadly, our results build on prior work that suggests a unifying role of normality and counterfactuals across many areas of high-level human cognition.


Why does descriptive normality matter for force judgments?

Our results also suggest that the descriptive normality of alternatives may be at least as important as the prescriptive normality. Why would this be the case? One possibility is that evaluations of the descriptive normality of alternatives may be influencing participants’ perceptions of the alternatives’ value. After all, actions that are taken by most people are often done so because they are the best choice. Likewise, morally wrong actions are much less commonplace than morally neutral or good ones. Therefore, participants may be inferring some kind of lower prescriptive value inherent in unusual actions, even in cases where we took great lengths to eliminate differences in prescriptive value.