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My Moral Sense Is Tingling!

June 28th, 2007 · 17 Comments

First, if you have any interest in taking a Moral Sense Test run by the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard (and who doesn’t?), go click through and do it now before I deflower your pristine intuitions with my throbbing analysis.


All done?



Ok, the test basically presents a series of short scenarios in which one person has accidentally injured another—which is to say, A performs an action that causes B to be injured, though A neither intends nor foresees this result of the action. The reader is then asked how large a fine, if any, ought to be levied on A as punishment, with the understanding that this will be paid to the government and go into the general fund.

Dan Drezner took the test and seems to have answered more or less as I did, and had the same reaction. I’m assuming that his relatively low average fine was, like mine, the result of assessing no fine at all in many of the cases, and fines of a few hundred dollars in a couple cases. And like him, I was astonished to see that the average for all test-takers was many tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, Mike Munger and (a rather calmer) Will Wilkinson are appalled we would specify any fine at all, since all the scenarios describe essentially private torts that should be remedied (if remedy is called for) by a payment to the injured individual. (I shelved this concern on the assumptions that the test designers had just chosen an exceedingly clumsy way of getting at the question of how culpable or blameworthy we should consider the actor in each case.) So, a few thoughts.

First, since all we get is an average, I’m going to guess that this isn’t representative of the median person’s fine, but rather a number skewed artificially high by a few outliers who entered hundred million dollar fines, either as a goof or because they have very weird moral views. Second, I’d be willing to bet that many people were not paying especially close attention to the initial framing, and were indeed making judgments about the actor’s total liability, including compensation for the victim’s suffering or medical costs, rather than the appropriate amount of a specifically punitive additional fine. Since one of the cases involves a broken leg, and another a possibly severe burn, those costs might well be substantial. The test designers could have spared readers some confusion by explicitly clarifying that this would be a fine tacked on after any compensation owed the victim was settled.

Which brings me to some of my more general concerns about the current vogue for experimental philosophy. I’m all for it in principle, especially given how often philosophers appeal to “our shared intuitions” without bothering to check how widely they are shared outside the faculty lounge. But theorists for whom this kind of empiricism is often a thrilling novelty often seem disposed to draw sweeping inferences from thin data that’s susceptible of many interpretations. I’ve written about my similar concerns regarding the generally very exciting work of neuroethicist Joshua Greene. But this particular survey seems truly egregiously poorly designed, and not just because it invites the kind of confusion about punitive and compensatory liability I mention above.

The researchers have my sympathy to a degree, because they’ve got to contend with the fact that people without philosophy training sometimes seem almost perversely resistant to ethical thought experiments whose point is to zero in on a very specific kind of moral reaction, which often requires accepting some implausible assumptions. I once made the mistake of offering up just such a thought experiment with the preface that “God has told you” that such-and-such is the case. Philosophers will occasionally deploy that turn of phrase as a kind of rough shorthand for: “Look, in the real world it might be almost impossible to be absolutely certain about X, Y, and Z, but we want to fiat that away so we can inquire into what our moral reaction would be if there weren’t any question about the facts of the case.” Many commenters were far more interested in the theological implications of this earthshattering encounter with divinity than with the ethical quandary, and gave answers that hinged on this dramatic confirmation of God’s existence.

Still, if that sort of thing can be frustrating, it’s because the whole rationale for these setups is—obviously, one hopes—to accept some admittedly unrealistic assumptions in hopes of zeroing in on a few clearly-defined moral “variables.” To answer these on the grounds that “in the real world” X wouldn’t hold or confounding feature Y might possibly obtain is usually to miss the point. But the scenarios on the Moral Sense Test are, in a way, the antithesis of the conventional moral thought experiment. Each one is a tangle of considerations, and they simultaneously vary along a welter of morally relevant dimensions.

They vary in the relations between the parties, who range from perfect strangers to doctor and patient to siblings. (Relevant in the latter case as one might imagine a man would not necessarily want his brother punished for the accidental infliction of a mild injury, even if he had been negligent, or because one supposes the special guilt one feels at having harmed a loved one would lessen the need for an additional deterrent.)

They vary in the reasonableness of the actor’s belief that his action would cause no harm—sometimes because we think anyone ought to know a welding torch will make a metal object dangerously hot, sometimes because the actor is a professional we expect to have special expertise.

They vary in the severity of the injuries, which range from a mild bruising to a broken leg and burned hands.

They vary in the victim’s contributory responsibility for the harm. In the welding case just mentioned, another student is (without apparent objection) voluntarily holding the metal object as the torch is applied. In another, a commuter bolts across a subway car into another passenger’s outstretched legs.

They vary in the possibility of assigning culpability to third parties. Where was the instructor in this welding class? Why weren’t the students using, I don’t know, gloves or something? Who set up this construction site where large, heavy objects go rolling into passersby if someone isn’t paying attention?

They vary in the commercial nature of the activity from which the injury arose: One case involved a dentist who presumably pockets a tidy fee each time he performs the procedure he botched, which would influence the size of the fine needed to provide an effective deterrent, though it also adds the potential confounding factor of serious reputation effects accruing even in the absence of a fine. Similarly, they vary in the implied economic class of the actor, which would change the real punitive impact of a given fine.

They vary in the likelihood that the actor will be faced with similar circumstances in the future—again, the dentist in one case, a construction worker in another. And so on, and so on.

Again, the problem isn’t the variation as such—the whole point, one supposes, is to see how our judgments change as each of these factors do. The problem is that there are many of these mutually interacting variations within each scenario. Maybe the folks at the Cognitive Eval Lab have some elaborate mathematical tools for isolating all these factors, but I’d expect it to be nearly impossible to figure out what was generating a particular judgment (and therefore the average judgment) in any of these setups. If this is what contemporary experimental philosophy looks like, we’ve got a long way to go before it’s capable of yielding useful insights.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 FinFangFoom // Jun 28, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    Yea, I went for zero liability on all of them, mostly because I am a law student. There wasn’t any part of the hypotheticals alleging any kind of negligence on the part of the individuals causing the injuries. There was clearly no intent to cause any of the injuries. If the hypotheticals were legal cases, there wouldn’t be any kind of recovery at all on the part of the injured party, at least not under regular tort law.

  • 2 Ricky // Jun 28, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    I noticed the lack of responsibility on the victims part too. Working in an industrial environment, the absence was somewhat glaring to me. Off the top of my head I noticed: The barrel roller’s employer should have had the area roped off at minimum, and ideally guards installed and signs posted. The metal working students obviously needed gloves. The electrician didn’t use lock out/tag out procedures, which is SOP in any electrical work. The area behind the carnival game should not have been accessible.

    My average? $231.

  • 3 Christopher M // Jun 28, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    I took the test before reading your post and I had exactly the same reaction. I actually suggested $0 fines for all the scenarios for two main reasons. First, they didn’t seem like appropriate cases for fines going to a general government fund (as opposed to compensation to the victim) — and unlike you, given that they went out of their way to make clear that we were talking about fines and not compensation I didn’t feel comfortable second-guessing them and ignoring that issue. Second, there was almost never enough information to judge whether the injuror was negligent, and without any basis to form that conclusion I wouldn’t impose a fine at all. I have the vague feeling that those weren’t the issues the testmakers were trying to capture, though, so it felt like a waste of time.

  • 4 Anonymo // Jun 29, 2007 at 6:04 am

    Yeah, the main thing I think we can conclude from this study is that whoever designed it is stupid.

    I said $0 for five of eight, I believe; there was no mens rea in any case and in most of the situations the victim seemed just as much at fault as the injuror (like the construction site thing — seriously, if you don’t know that construction sites are dangerous and you should watch where you’re going, I think there’s a Darwin Award with your name on it.)

    I fined the dentist (he’s a pro, I suppose he should be held to some basic standard of competency in wielding a drill), the welder (metal conducts heat, moron) and one other I can’t recall — all a few hundred bucks, like a traffic ticket. I assume the draconian average figures are the result of pranksters.

    Did find it interesting that the survey designers presume putting money in a “general government fund” is something inoffensive to which no one would object.

  • 5 Nick // Jun 29, 2007 at 8:25 am

    I agreed with Munger and Wilkinson that the proper fine in each case was $0, although I wavered on the dentist. Still, I see no reason the government should be fining people in any of these cases. There should be penalties paid, but they should be paid to the sufferer.

    By the by, I would not assume that the test’s creators find the money going into a general government fund to be morally neutral. The wording is very careful. They may not be testing what you think they’re testing.

    Also, these are the opinions of a true blue liberal; I have no objections to the government getting some cash when someone breaks the law. I just didn’t find any of these actions to be illegal, and I have a very large problem with the government profiting from someone’s pain.

  • 6 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Jun 29, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Zero for all for the reasons other posters have noted. I don’t try to second-guess surveys — I answer the question asked. Though the fact they didn’t even have a comment section where I could explain my outlier answers shows how clumisly designed the survey was.

  • 7 Rachel // Jun 29, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Perhaps naively, I assumed that what the test was actually measuring was the relative damages one assessed for each situation, so out of math laziness, I assigned all fines within a $100 scale. My average was like $30. Oops>

  • 8 Bobbo // Jun 29, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Yeah, like Anonymo I tends to fine people for being stupid, so I fined the metal worker, the mechanics, and the barrel roller, just because I figured he should have roped the area off (or been in better control of the barrels).

    I didn’t fine the dentist because he’s a dentist. You go to the dentist you should expect that there will be pain, that the pain will be mitigated by anesthesia, but that may not do the job. As long as he didn’t do permanent damage to the patient, he didn’t do anything wrong.

    My mean was 21 dollars, most of it being the c-note I fined the construction worker.

  • 9 Brian Moore // Jun 29, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    I too was mainly $0. I fined in 2 situations that seemed to imply professional negligence (barrel rolling and welder). The rest were just accidents that happen.

  • 10 Brian Moore // Jun 29, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Secondarily, I agree that most of these tests I find are poorly designed. The main amusing attraction of them has been to find the errors in assumptions and debate them with friends.

  • 11 Al // Jun 29, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    I lost my virginity to Savage Garden’s “Truly egregiously poorly”

  • 12 dan // Jun 30, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    I read the first line of the test and sort of took it as an endorsement. By the second question I resented that you’d sent me there. I have enough respect for good philosophical work to hate that my only contribution to the field is to be a data point in an idiotic survey which will generate what is sure to be a terrible paper.

    I think whoever designed this test either hadn’t thought through the word “punishment” very carefully, or has some very surprising ideas about it. And I sure hope you’re right about the high average being goofs. Personally, I was zero for all but one, involving a woman who put her feet on a bench across from where she was sitting in a train station, while watching a guy rush towards her to catch a train. Gave her a traffic ticket, which I debated for a while, but given that she’d seen the guy rushing towards her, that’s pretty negligent.

  • 13 Mark // Jul 1, 2007 at 2:12 am

    I only severly fined the woman who ate peanuts. Why? she was in a place for allergic people, everyone has heard of peanut allergy. Unless she can be honestly clasified as a moron. She knew she shouldn’t consume a known allergic product in a hospital enviroment.

  • 14 Michael B Sullivan // Jul 2, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    I gave $300 fines to the dentist and the construction worker, and fines from $10 to $30 to a few of the other people on the grounds that it was like a smack on the nose to a puppy: “You didn’t know that metal conducts heat? Bad student! No biscuit!”

    It’d be interesting to see a fuller breakdown of the results, to see whether the $80,000 average fine or whatever it was is the result of outliers or is more or less at the hump of some normal-ish curve.

  • 15 Anonymous // Jul 3, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Look, this won’t be the only questionaire that the experimenters have people fill out. They have probably created three or four surveys, changing each question just slightly on each different survey. All the questions on each individual survey look very different, and have a few competing moral considerations, as they ought to. But the question about the dentist on the first survey will change in one, and only one, important way on the next survey, and perhaps even further along that dimension on the third, and so forth. The order of the questions ought to be shuffled between surveys as well, to make sure that has nothing to do with the responses. Any measurable change in the average fine assessed when each question is altered will be useful. It would be nice if the same population of people could fill out all four or five surveys – using a subject as its own control is always best. I’m sure the budget for this sort of work is pretty small, though, so they’ll have to assume that each population of internet survey-takers is pretty similar. Judging from the group of clones who commented on this post, that assumption should hold.

  • 16 Tim // Aug 10, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    I started to take the test but it was very different for me. It was about people being used to doing something one way, and then finding another way may be better or cheaper or easier, and picking between the two choices.

    My typical thought was to select the middle, that they could do either one. They don’t really give enough information to conclude that one is better than another. How would I know how much benefit someone gets from a particular, now more expensive vacation spot in Mexico, or how much the money saved would matter. And if I did have some idea who am I to make the choice for them. Even if I tried to put myself in that position, well I know my financial situation, but I’ve never been to Mexico, and I don’t have any specific vacation spot that I regularly go to.

  • 17 FH // Nov 30, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Hey I didn’t see any results?? Do they show it? I was wondering why there is no debriefing