Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Explanations of deontological responses to moral dilemmas

Hundreds of experiments have now shown, in various ways, that responses to moral dilemmas often follow deontological rules rather than utilitarian theory. Deontological rules are rules that indicate whether some category of actions is required, permissible, or forbidden. Utilitarianism says that the best choice among those under consideration is that one that does the most expected good for all those affected. For example, utilitarianism implies that it is better to kill one person to save five others than not to kill (other things being equal), while some deontological rule may say that active killing is forbidden, whatever the consequences.

In many of these experiments, deontological responses (DRs) seem to be equivalent to responses that demonstrate cognitive biases in non-moral situations. For example, the omission bias favors harms of omission over less harmful harms caused by acts, in both moral and non-moral situations (Ritov & Baron, 1990). This similarity suggests that the DRs arise from some sort of error, or poor thinking. Much evidence indicates that the cognitive processes supporting moral and non-moral judgments are largely the same (e.g., Greene, 2007). If this is true, the question arises of what sort of thinking is involved, and when it occurs. Several (mutually consistent) possibilities have been suggested:

1. Dual-system theory in its simplest form ("default interventionist" or "sequential") says that DRs arise largely as an immediate intuitive response to a dilemma presented in an experiment, once the dilemma is understood. Then, sometimes, the subject may question the initial intuition and wind up giving the utilitarian response as a result of a second step of reflective thought. The same two-step sequences has been argued to account for many other errors in reasoning, including errors in arithmetic, problem solving, and logic. By this view, the cognitive problem that produces DRs is a failure to check, a failure to get to the second step before responding. This dual-system view has been popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, fast and slow". I have provided evidence that it is largely incorrect (Baron & Gürçay, 2016).

2. Very similar to this sequential dual-system theory, but different, is the theory of actively open-minded thinking (AOT; Baron, 1995). AOT begins from a view of thinking as search and inference. We search for possible answers to the question at hand, arguments or evidence for or against one possible answer or another, and criteria or values to apply when we evaluate the relative strengths of the answers in view of the arguments at hand. AOT avoids errors in thinking by searching for alternative possibilities, and for arguments and goals that might lead to a higher evaluation of possibile answers other than those that are already strong. By this view, the main source of errors is that thinking is insufficiently self-critical; the thinker looks for support for possibilities that are already strong and fails to look for support for alternatives. In the case of moral dilemmas, the DRs would be those that are already strong at the outset of thinking and would not be subject to sufficient questioning, even though additional thinking may proceed to bolster these responses. The main difference between this view and the sequential dual-system view is that AOT is concerned with the direction of thinking, not the extent of it, although of course there must be some minimal extent if self-criticism is to occur. AOT also defines direction as a continuous quantity, so it does not assume all-or-none "reflection or no reflection". By this account, utilitarian and deontological responses need not differ in the amount of time or effort required for them. Bolstering and questioning need not differ in either direction, in their processing demands.

3. A developmental view extends the AOT view to what happens outside of the experiment (Baron, 2011). Moral principles develop over many years, and they may change as a result of questioning and external challenges. DRs may arise early in development, but that may also depend on the child's environment, how morality is taught. Reflection may lead to increasingly utilitarian views as people question the justification of DRs, especially in cases where following these DRs leads to obviously harmful outcomes. When subjects are faced with moral dilemmas in experiments, they largely apply the principles that they have previously developed, which may be utilitarian, deontological or (most often) both.

4. We can replace "development of the individual" with "social evolution of culture" (Baron, in press). Historically, morality may not have been distinguished from formal law until relatively recently. Law takes the form of DRs. Cultural views persist, historically, even when some people have replaced them with other ways of thinking. Kohlberg has suggest that this sequence happens in development, where the distinction between morality and law is made fairly late. Thus, the course of individual development may to some extent recapitulate the history of cultures.

These alternatives have somewhat different implications for the question of how to make people more utilitarian, if that is what we want to do. (I do.) But the implications are not that different. A view that is consistent with all of them is to emphasize reflective moral education, presenting arguments for and against utilitarian solutions, and encouraging students to think of such arguments themselves (Baron, 1990).

Recently I and others have written several articles criticizing the sequential dual-system view of moral judgment and other tasks, such as problem solving in logic and mathematics (e.g., Baron & Gürçay, 2016; Pennycook et al., 2014). I think it is apparent that, at least in the moral domain, the role of different mechanisms is not a big deal. All these views are consistent with the more general claim that DRs can be understood as errors, and that they need not be seen as "hard wired", but, rather, malleable.


Baron, J. (1990). Thinking about consequences. Journal of Moral Education, 19, 77–87.

Baron, J. (1995). Myside bias in thinking about abortion. Thinking and Reasoning, 1, 221–235.

Baron, J. (2011). Where do non-utilitarian moral rules come from? In J. I. Krueger and E. T. Higgins (Eds.) Social judgment and decision making, pp. 261–278. New York: Psychology Press.

Baron, J. (in press). Utilitarian vs. deontological reasoning: method, results, and theory. In J.-F. Bonnefon & B. Trémolière (forthcoming). Moral inferences. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Baron, J. & Gürçay, B. (2016). A meta-analysis of response-time tests of the sequential two-systems model of moral judgment. Memory and Cognition. doi:10.3758/s13421-016-0686-8

Greene, J. D. (2007). The secret joke of Kant’s soul, in W. Sinnott-Armstrong, Ed., Moral psychology, Vol. 3: The neuroscience of morality: Emotion, disease, and development, pp. 36–79. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Pennycook, G., Trippas, D., Handley, S. J., & Thompson, V. A. (2014). Base-rates: Both neglected and intuitive. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 544--554.

Ritov, I., & Baron, J. (1990). Reluctance to vaccinate: omission bias and ambiguity. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3, 263–277.

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