Moral judgments and intuitions about freedom

Psychological Inquiry 20 (1):30-36 (2009)
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Reeder’s article offers a new and intriguing approach to the study of people’s ordinary understanding of freedom and constraint. On this approach, people use information about freedom and constraint as part of a quasi-scientific effort to make accurate inferences about an agent’s motives. Their beliefs about the agent’s motives then affect a wide variety of further psychological processes, including the process whereby they arrive at moral judgments. In illustrating this new approach, Reeder cites an elegant study he conducted a number of years ago (Reeder & Spores, 1983). All subjects were given a vignette about a man who goes with his date to a pizza parlor and happens to come across a box that has been designated for charitable donations. In one condition, the man’s date then requests that he make a donation; in the other, she requests that he steal the money that is already in the box. In both conditions, the man chooses to comply with this request. The key question is how subjects will use his behavior to make inferences about whether he is a morally good or morally bad person. The results revealed a marked difference between conditions. When the man donated to charity, subjects were generally disinclined to conclude that he must have been a morally good person. It is as though they were thinking: ‘He didn’t just do this out of the goodness of his heart.
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