In a paper I’m preparing, I argue that concrete moral details may influence judgments of moral responsibility in determinist circumstances through processes that are neither errant nor affective (Sorry, Shaun and Josh!). I tested a competing hypothesis—that ordinary judgments of moral responsibility vary in large part due to cognitive, effable differences in usage and conception—by providing 116 undergraduates with an abstract compatibilist case and asking them to evaluate moral responsibility, and then also asking them the extent to which the criminal’s level of moral responsibility would depend on the nature of the crime.
I was frankly surprised by just how strongly the evidence favored of this dependence recognition principle (DRC). Half of the variance in attributions of moral responsibility (r2 = .582) could be explained by individual differences in attitude toward the DRC. Those who thought moral responsibility to be “extremely dependent” or “absolutely dependent” on the nature of a crime attributed just as much moral responsibility for abstract cases (M = 6.07) as those in a contrastive group of 114 participants given a concrete case (M = 6.54), adapted from this gorgeous and fascinating story in the New Yorker (which is way more interesting than this here blog post, trust me). Meanwhile, respondents who thought moral responsibility was “not at all” or “a little” dependent on the nature of a crime gave the incompatibilist responses to the abstract moral crime we have come to think of as typical (M = 2.30).
I think any interpretation of these results should acknowledge concerns about ceiling effects and sample size, and I would not be surprised if there were be a small but significant effect with a larger sample. But there was enough power to reveal that whatever variance abstract/concrete effects the DRC is incapable of explaining, it is far less than the variance that can be explained by DRC—at least, in this one case. I am very interested in whatever critical feedback analytic philosophers, experimental philosophers, and psychologists might be able to provide. I see several shortcomings in this initial exploration, but I’m sure there are many more I have missed—and maybe even a few positives I missed, too! So, I’d love your comments, no matter how complex or how blunt.