It is now widely believed that people's moral judgments can affect their causal judgments, but a great deal of confusion remains about precisely why this effect arises.
For a simple example, consider the following case:
The receptionist in the philosophy department keeps her desk stocked with pens. The administrative assistants are allowed to take the pens, but faculty members are supposed to buy their own.
The administrative assistants typically do take the pens. Unfortunately, so do the faculty members. The receptionist has repeatedly emailed them reminders that only administrative assistants are allowed to take the pens.
On Monday morning, one of the administrative assistants encounters Professor Smith walking past the receptionist's desk. Both take pens. Later that day, the receptionist needs to take an important message… but she has a problem. There are no pens left on her desk.
Faced with this case, most subjects say that the professor did cause the problem but that the administrative assistant did not
cause the problem. Yet it seems that the only major difference between
these two agents lies in the moral status of what they are doing. How
could this moral difference be making a difference in people's causal
Christopher Hitchcock and I have a new suggestion about what might be going on here. Our hypothesis draws on the idea that people's causal judgments are based on counterfactual reasoning. On this approach, people evaluate the two causal claims presented here by considering two counterfactual scenarios:
- If the professor had not taken a pen,...
- If the administrative assistant had not taken a pen,...
The thought then is that people's moral judgments affect the degree to which they regard each of these counterfactuals as relevant. When they consider the counterfactual about the professor, it strikes them as a highly relevant one, which would certainly be worth considering. By contrast, when they consider the counterfactual about the administrative assistant, it strikes them as entirely irrelevant. (Why would anyone even want to know what would have happened under these circumstances?)
So the overall idea is that causal judgments draw on counterfactual reasoning but that people's intuitions about the relevance of counterfactuals are affected by moral judgments... and moral judgments therefore end up indirectly affecting people's causal judgments.