Identification, situational constraint, and social cognition : studies in the attribution of moral responsibility

In Joshua Knobe & Shaun Nichols (eds.), Experimental Philosophy. Oxford University Press (2007)
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Abstract

In three experiments we studied lay observers’ attributions of responsibility for an antisocial act (homicide). We systematically varied both the degree to which the action was coerced by external circumstances and the degree to which the actor endorsed and accepted ownership of the act, a psychological state that philosophers have termed ‘identification’. Our findings with respect to identification were highly consistent. The more an actor was identified with an action, the more likely observers were to assign responsibility to the actor, even when the action was performed under constraints so powerful that no other behavioral option was available. Our findings indicate that social cognition involving assignment of responsibility for an action is a more complex process than previous research has indicated. It would appear that laypersons’ judgments of moral responsibility may, in some circumstances, accord with philosophical views in which freedom and determinism are regarded to be compatible.

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