Monday, February 28, 2011


Below is the abstract for "Investigating the Neural and Cognitive Basis of Moral Luck" (Liane Young, Shaun Nichols and Rebecca Saxe), a paper we read last week in CGSC 390.
Moral judgments, we expect, ought not to depend on luck. A person should be blamed only for actions and outcomes that were under the person’s control. Yet often, moral judgments appear to be influenced by luck. A father who leaves his child by the bath, after telling his child to stay put and believing that he will stay put, is judged to be morally blameworthy if the child drowns (an unlucky outcome), but not if his child stays put and doesn’t drown. Previous theories of moral luck suggest that this asymmetry reflects primarily the influence of unlucky outcomes on moral judgments. In the current study, we use behavioral methods and fMRI to test an alternative: these moral judgments largely reflect participants’ judgments of the agent’s beliefs. In “moral luck” scenarios, the unlucky agent also holds a false belief. Here, we show that moral luck depends more on false beliefs than bad outcomes. We also show that participants with false beliefs are judged as having less justified beliefs and are therefore judged as more morally blameworthy. The current study lends support to a rationalist account of moral luck: moral luck asymmetries are driven not by outcome bias primarily, but by mental state assessments we endorse as morally relevant, i.e. whether agents are justified in thinking that they won’t cause harm.
Although my focus within the cognitive science major has primarily been economic decision making, I'm becoming increasingly intrigued by research about morality and moral judgments. I found this paper particularly interesting (although some of the brain imaging material seemed unnecessary). Here's a diagram from the paper that represents the authors' model of cognitive inputs:

Reason (bad, unspecified, good reasons) and truth (false versus true beliefs) influence judgments of belief justification, which influence moral blameworthiness judgments (blue and purple arrows). Outcome (bad versus neutral outcomes) directly influences moral blameworthiness judgments, which in turn influence belief justification judgments (red arrows)

At the end of the paper, the researchers conclude:
Previous accounts of moral luck have attributed this asymmetry in our moral judgments to the asymmetry in outcomes (e.g., drowning versus no drowning), suggesting that bad outcomes lead to more moral blame (Baron and Hershey 1988; Nagel 1979; Williams 1982). These accounts have typically neglected an alternative possibility: unlucky agents are judged to be more morally blameworthy not just because of the bad outcomes they cause but because of their false beliefs. Traditional “moral luck” scenarios confounded false beliefs and bad outcomes, making it impossible to test for the contributions of truth (true vs. false beliefs) and outcome (neutral vs. bad) to moral luck asymmetries. To compare the contributions of false beliefs and bad outcomes to moral luck, we therefore introduced an “extra lucky” condition, in which the agent’s belief was false but the outcome was neutral (e.g., Mitch’s son climbs into the tub but ends up, luckily, fine). 
As predicted, we found that false beliefs contribute more to moral luck than bad outcomes: the difference in moral blame for false versus true beliefs was greater than the difference in moral blame for bad versus neutral outcomes. Agents with false beliefs were judged to be more blameworthy than agents with true beliefs, even when no bad outcome occurred. For example, Mitch was blamed more when his belief was false (e.g., his son gets in the tub) than when his belief was true (e.g., his son stays put), even when no harm came to his son in either case. We also found that participants judged false beliefs to be less justified than the corresponding true beliefs, and that it was this difference in belief justification that drove the corresponding difference in moral blameworthiness. Moreover, it did not matter whether Mitch’s reason for his belief was good or bad—Mitch was blamed more for false beliefs than true beliefs regardless of his reason for his belief. 
As we predicted, moral luck thus appears to depend primarily on judgments about the agent’s mental states. Importantly, however, we also observed an independent influence of bad outcomes on moral blame, which could not be explained by any influence on belief justification. As predicted by traditional non-rationalist accounts of moral luck, judgments of the agent’s moral blameworthiness were directly affected by whether outcomes were bad or neutral. We note also that our methods may have underestimated the role of outcomes on some moral judgments (Cushman 2008). In general, outcomes exert a greater influence on judgments of punishment (Cushman 2008; Rosebury 1995) than on judgments of moral blameworthiness (measured here) or moral wrongness. 
One possible explanation for why we found moral judgments to influence mental state judgments is that participants initially make moral judgments based partially on outcomes, and then spontaneously seek to justify those judgments to themselves by appealing to differences along a dimension they rationally endorse: belief justification (Kliemann et al. 2008; Alicke 2000). This phenomenon may thus converge with other evidence showing that people appeal to rationally endorsed principles when dumbfounded by their own judgments made on other bases. 
In sum, in resisting moral luck and its paradoxical nature, we might take solace in several aspects of the present results. First, while bad outcomes do lead directly to more moral blame (independent of factors that affect belief justification), such outcome-based moral luck appears to be most pronounced in the case of negligent or reckless individuals who are already unjustified to think they won’t cause harm. Second, moral judgments do appear to be dominated by factors we reflectively endorse as morally relevant: whether agents have good or bad reasons for their beliefs, whether these beliefs are true or false. When assigning moral blame, we care mostly about whether agents are justified in thinking that they won’t cause harm. To the extent that moral luck asymmetries are driven by such mental state assessments, we may be able to defend a rational approach to morality.