Behaviorist Thinking in Judgments of Wrongness, Punishment, and Blame


Moral judgment depends upon inferences about agents’ beliefs, desires, and intentions. Here, we argue that in addition to these factors, people take into account the moral optimality of an action. Three experiments show that even agents who are ignorant about the nature of their moral decisions are held accountable for the quality of their decision—a kind of behaviorist thinking, in that such reasoning bypasses the agent’s mental states. In particular, whereas optimal choices are seen as more praiseworthy than suboptimal choices, decision quality has no further effect on moral judgments—a highly suboptimal choice is seen as no worse than a marginally suboptimal choice. These effects held up for judgments of wrongness and punishment (Experiment 1), positive and negative outcomes (Experiment 2), and agents with positive and negative intentions (Experiment 3). We argue that these results reflect a broader tendency to irresistibly apply the Efficiency Principle when explaining behavior.

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