Liane Young and I have recently become interested in what I think is an intriguing feature of morality's influence on social and causal cognition. This research began by borrowing from some studies which suggested that people's moral judgments can influence their judgments of force and freedom (if you don't know it, here's a funny 3 minute and 29 second overview). Liane and I took these cases and changed them just a little bit, to see if people's moral jugments could actually lead them to giving directly contradictory judgments.
I think the basic finding can be explained pretty simply. In one study, participants read a vignette about a hospital where a chief of surgery orders a subordinate doctor (against his will) to prescribe a drug called Accuphine. And, in some cases, the patient dies as a result of having taken the drug. Then, after reading the vignette, particpiants were asked one of two related questions:
- Did the chief of surgery force the doctor to prescribe Accuphine?
- Was the doctor forced to prescribe Accuphine?
While most participants agreed with the first claim, they actually disagreed with the second : But this pattern of responses seems obviously inconsistent: participants both agreed that the chief forced the doctor, and disagreed that the doctor was forced. So what might explain this paradoxical pattern of responses? (more after the break.)
Liane and I have come up with one idea about how you might try and explain this pattern of results. It could be that the differnces in the wording of the question (active vs. passive) lead people to focus on one moral agent rather than the other. This difference in moral focus might change people's judgments of force by first changing the focus of their moral judgment. For example, when participants were asked 'Was the doctor forced?', participants may have been more inclined to focus on the doctor and consider alternatives to the doctor's action (e.g., he should have refused). This would have then led them to judge that he wasn't forced. Yet, when the moral focus was shifted to the chief of surgery, participants would have been less inclined to consider the alternative actions available to the doctor. This may have led them to judge that the chief did, in fact, force the doctor. The main idea, then, is just that participants produced an inconsistent pattern of responses because they considered the possible alternative actions only for the agent who was in their moral focus.
So I was wondering what other experimental philosophers would make of these results, whether you could think of another (perhaps better) alternative explanation, and whether there are some further studies that could help us get to the bottom of it all. Thanks for your help!