Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions
by Shaun Nichols and Joshua Knobe
-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website edited by Ted Honderich --

Like the paper Folk Intuitions on Free Will, which you could read first, this paper by Prof. Nichols of the University of Utah and Prof. Knobe of Princeton University depends on an experimental method, that of well-calculated questionnaires, as against ordinary philosophical method, to arrive at judgements about determinism and freedom. More particularly, the paper provides experimental evidence that we do all subscribe to an idea of moral responsibility that is inconsistent with determinism but that we also make judgements of responsibility consistent with determinism. Our responses to questions about responsibility vary according to facts of emotionality or affect as against a cold cognitive process, and in particular emotive or motivating formulations of questions. This admirable paper goes about its own business, entirely worth attention for itself. It arrives at hypotheses about common belief in determinism and then our making the conflicting responses about moral responsibility, sometimes incompatible with determines, sometimes not. It gives as much time to considering possible explanations of the conflict, in terms of three models. But the paper thus provides experimental evidence against the tired but maybe still tempting idea that either determinism is logically consistent with moral responsibility or it is not. That idea rests on the assumption that moral responsibility is one thing. The tired idea and the assumption and related ones have been under attack by others before now, increasingly successful attack. See the Editor's Postscript below.

1. Introduction

    The dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists must be one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy. Incompatibilists maintain that people are not fully morally responsible if determinism is true, i.e., if every event is an inevitable consequence of the prior conditions and the natural laws. By contrast, compatibilists maintain that even if determinism is true our moral responsibility is not undermined in the slightest, for determinism and moral responsibility are perfectly consistent. [1]

    The debate between these two positions has invoked many different resources, including quantum mechanics, social psychology, and basic metaphysics.  But recent discussions have relied heavily on arguments that draw on people’s intuitions about particular cases. Some philosophers have claimed that people have incompatibilist intuitions (e.g., Kane 1999, 218; Strawson 1986, 30; Vargas forthcoming); others have challenged this claim and suggested that people’s intuitions actually fit with compatibilism (Lycan 2003:, Nahmias et al. forthcoming).  But although philosophers have constructed increasingly sophisticated arguments about the implications of people’s intuitions, there has been remarkably little discussion about why people have the intuitions they do. That is to say, relatively little has been said about the specific psychological processes that generate or sustain people’s intuitions. And yet, it seems clear that questions about the sources of people’s intuitions could have a major impact on debates about the compatibility of responsibility and determinism. There is an obvious sense in which it is important to figure out whether people’s intuitions are being produced by a process that is generally reliable or whether they are distorted by a process that generally leads people astray.

    Our aim here is to present and defend a hypothesis about the processes that generate people’s intuitions concerning moral responsibility. Our hypothesis is that people subscribe to an incompatibilist theory [2] of moral responsibility but that other subsystems within their minds can lead them to arrive at compatibilist judgments in certain contexts. To support this hypothesis, we report new experimental data. These data show that people’s responses to questions about moral responsibility can vary dramatically depending on the way in which the question is formulated. When asked questions that call for a more abstract, theoretical sort of cognition, people give overwhelmingly incompatibilist answers. But when asked questions that trigger emotions, their answers become far more compatibilist.

2. Affect, blame, and the attribution of responsibility

In their attempts to get a handle on folk concepts and folk theories, naturalistic philosophers have proceeded by looking at people’s intuitions about particular cases (e.g., Knobe 2003a, 2003b; Nahmias et al forthcoming; Nichols 2004a; Weinberg et al. 2001; Woolfolk et al. forthcoming). The basic technique is simple. The philosopher constructs a hypothetical scenario and then asks people whether, for instance, the agent in the scenario is morally responsible. By varying the details of the case and checking to see how people’s intuitions are affected, one can gradually get a sense for the contours of the folk theory. This method is a good one, but it must be practiced with care. One cannot simply assume that all of the relevant intuitions are generated by the same underlying folk theory. It is always possible that different intuitions will turn out to have been generated by different psychological processes.

    Here we will focus especially on the role of affect in generating intuitions about moral responsibility. Our hypothesis is that, when people are confronted with a story about an agent who performs a morally bad behavior, this can trigger an immediate emotional response, and this emotional response can play a crucial role in the person’s intuition about whether the agent was morally responsible.  In fact, people may sometimes declare such an agent to be morally responsible despite the fact that they embrace a theory of responsibility on which the agent is not responsible.

    Consider, for example, Watson’s interesting discussion of the crimes of Robert Harris (1987). Watson provides long quotations from a newspaper article about how Harris savagely murdered innocent people, showing no remorse for what he had done. Then he describes, in equally chilling detail, the horrible abuse Harris had to endure as he was growing up. After reading all of these vivid details, it would be almost impossible for a reader to respond by calmly working out the implications of his or her theory of moral responsibility. Any normal reader will have a rich array of reactions, including not only abstract philosophical theorizing but also feelings of horror and disgust. A reader’s intuitions about such a case might be swayed by her emotions, leaving her with a conclusion that contravened her more abstract, theoretical beliefs about the nature of moral responsibility.

    Still, it might be thought that this sort of effect would be unlikely to influence people’s reactions to ordinary philosophical examples. Most philosophical examples are purely hypothetical and thinly described (often only a few sentences in length). To a first glance at least, it might seem that emotional reactions are unlikely to have any impact on people’s intuitions about examples like these. But a growing body of experimental evidence indicates that this commonsense view is mistaken. This evidence suggests that affect plays an important role even in people’s intuitions about thinly described, purely hypothetical cases (Blair 1995; Greene et al. 2001; Nichols 2002; Wheatley & Haidt forthcoming).

     It may seem puzzling that affect should play such a powerful role, and a number of different models of the role of emotion in evaluative thought have been proposed. We will discuss some of these models in further detail in sections 6 and 7. In the meantime, we want to point to one factor that appears to be influencing people’s affective reactions. A recent study by Smart and Loewenstein (forthcoming) shows that when a transgressor is made more ‘determinate’ for subjects, subjects experience greater negative affect and are more punitive towards that agent as a result.  In the study, subjects play a game in which they can privately cooperate or defect.  Each subject is assigned an identifying number, but none of the subjects knows anyone else’s number.  The experimenter puts the numbers of the defectors into an envelope.  The cooperators are subsequently allowed to decide whether to penalize a defector.  The cooperator is informed that he will pick a number out of the envelope to determine which defector will be penalized (or not).  The manipulation was unbelievably subtle.  In the indeterminate condition, subjects decide how much to penalize before they draw the number; in the determinate condition, subjects decide how much to penalize after they draw the number.  Despite this tiny difference, Smart and Loewenstein found a significant effect – subjects in the determinate condition gave worse penalties than subjects in the indeterminate condition.  Furthermore, subjects filled out a self-report questionnaire on how much anger, blame, and sympathy they felt, and subjects in the determinate condition felt more anger and blame than subjects in the indeterminate condition.  Finally, using mediational statistical analysis, Smart and Loewenstein found that determinateness affects punitiveness by virtue of provoking stronger emotions. 

     As we shall see, previous studies of people’s moral responsibility intuitions all featured determinate agents and therefore were designed in a way that would tend to trigger affective reactions. Our own study provides an opportunity to see how people’s intuitions are altered when the stimuli are designed in a way that keeps affective reactions to a minimum.

3. Intuitions about free will and responsibility

    Incompatibilist philosophers have traditionally claimed both that ordinary people believe that human decisions are not governed by deterministic laws and that ordinary people believe that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility (e.g., Kane 1999; Strawson 1986). These claims have been based, not on systematic empirical research, but rather on anecdote and informal observation.  For example, Kane writes, “In my experience, most ordinary persons start out as natural incompatibilists” (1999, 217).  (As will be clear below, we think Kane is actually getting at something deep about our intuitions here.)  In recent years, philosophers have sought to put claims like this one to the test using experimental methods. The results have sometimes been surprising.

     First, consider the claim that ordinary people believe that human decisions are not governed by deterministic laws. In a set of experiments exploring the lay understanding of choice, both children and adults tended to treat moral choices as indeterminist (Nichols 2004a). Participants were presented with cases of moral choice events (e.g., a girl steals a candy bar) and physical events (e.g., a pot of water comes to a boil), and they were asked whether, if everything in the world was the same right up until the event occurred, the event had to occur.  Both children and adults were more likely to say that the physical event had to occur than that the moral choice event had to occur. This result seems to vindicate the traditional claim that ordinary people believe that at least some human decisions are not determined.

     Experimental study has not been so kind to the traditional claim that ordinary people are incompatibilists. Woolfolk, Doris and Darley (forthcoming) gave participants a story about an agent who is captured by kidnappers and given a powerful ‘compliance drug.’ The drug makes it impossible for him to disobey orders.  The kidnappers order him to perform an immoral action, and he cannot help but obey. Subjects in the ‘low identification condition’ were told that the agent did not want to perform the immoral action and was only performing it because he had been given the compliance drug. Subjects in the ‘high identification condition’ were told that the agent wanted to perform the immoral action all along and felt no reluctance about performing it. The results showed a clear effect of identification: subjects in the high identification condition gave higher ratings of responsibility for the agent than subjects in the low identification condition. This result fits with compatibilism, and it illuminates the relevance of identification to lay attributions of responsibility.  However, subjects in both conditions showed an overall tendency to give low ratings of responsibility for the agent. So these results don’t pose a direct threat to the view that people are incompatibilists about responsibility.

     The final set of studies we’ll review pose a greater problem for the view that people are intuitive incompatibilists.  Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer and Turner (forthcoming) find that participants will hold an agent morally responsible even when they are told to assume that the agent is in a deterministic universe.  For instance, they presented participants with the following scenario:

"Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a supercomputer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25th, 2150 A.D., twenty years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 PM on January 26th, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6:00 PM on January 26th, 2195."

Participants were subsequently asked whether Jeremy is morally blameworthy for robbing the bank.  The results were striking: 83% of subjects said that Jeremy was morally blameworthy for robbing the bank.  In two additional experiments with different scenarios, similar effects emerged, suggesting that lay people regard moral responsibility as compatible with determinism.

    The findings of Nahmias and colleagues are fascinating, and we will try to build on them in our own experiment.  Of course, it is possible to challenge the experiments on methodological grounds.  For instance, the scenarios use technical vocabulary (e.g., “laws of nature”, “initial conditions”), and one might wonder whether the subjects really understood the scenarios. Further, one might complain that determinism is not made sufficiently salient in the scenarios. Although one might use these methodological worries to dismiss the results, we are not inclined to do so.  For we think that Nahmias and colleagues have probably tapped into something of genuine interest.[3] They report three quite different scenarios that produce much the same effect. In each of their experiments, most people (60-85%) say that the agent is morally responsible even under the assumption that determinism is true.  Moreover, the results coincide with independent psychological work on the assignment of punishment.  Viney and colleagues found that college students who were identified as determinists were no less punitive than indeterminists (Viney et al. 1982) and no less likely to offer retributivist justifications for punishments (Viney et al. 1988)[4] So, we will assume that Nahmias et al. are right that when faced with an agent intentionally doing a bad action in a deterministic setting, people tend to hold the agent morally responsible.

    But if people so consistently give compatibilist responses on experimental questionnaires, why have some philosophers concluded that ordinary people are incompatibilists?[5] Have these philosophers simply been failing to listen to their own undergraduate students? We suspect that something more complex is going on. On our view, most people really do hold incompatibilist theories of moral responsibility, and these theories can easily be brought out in the kinds of philosophical discussions that arise, e.g., in university seminars. It’s just that, in addition to their theories of moral responsibility, people also have immediate affective reactions to stories about immoral behaviors. What we see in the results of the experiments by Nahmias and colleagues is, in part, the effect of these affective reactions. People’s incompatibilist theories become readily apparent when questions are presented in a way that calls for more abstract, theoretical cognition.

4. Experiment 1

     This experiment was designed to explore whether participants will be more likely to report incompatibilist intuitions if the emotional and motivational factors are minimized. One condition was designed to elicit greater affective response; the other condition was designed to trigger abstract, theoretical cognition.  We predicted that people would be more likely to respond as compatibilists in the affect-laden condition.

     Before we present the details of the experiment, we should note that there are many ways to characterize determinism.  The most precise characterizations involve technical language about, for example, the laws of nature.  However, we think it’s a mistake to use technical terminology for these sorts of experiments, and we therefore tried to present the issue in more accessible language.[6] Of course, any attempt to translate complex philosophical issues into simpler terms will raise difficult questions. It is certainly possible that the specific description of determinism used in our study biased people’s intuitions in one direction or another. Perhaps the overall rate of incompatibilist responses would have been somewhat higher or lower if we had used a subtly different formulation.

     One should keep in mind, however, that our main focus here is on the difference between people’s responses in the condition designed to trigger affect and their responses in the condition designed to minimize affect. Even though we use exactly the same description of determinism in these two conditions, we predict that people will give compatibilist responses in the affect-laden condition and incompatibilist responses in the affect-neutral condition. Such an effect could not be dismissed as an artifact of our description of determinism. If a difference actually does emerge, we will therefore have good evidence for the view that affect is playing some role in people’s compatibilist intuitions.


Participants: 61 undergraduates in introductory philosophy classes at the University of Utah participated in this study. 43 participants were male and 18 were female.

Procedure: Participants were given questionnaires in a classroom.  There were two conditions.  In the affect-laden condition, participants were given the following questionnaire:

"Imagine a universe (Universe A) in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it.  This is true from the very beginning of the universe, so what happened in the beginning of the universe caused what happened next, and so on right up until the present.  For example one day John decided to have French Fries at lunch.  Like everything else, this decision was completely caused by what happened before it.  So, if everything in this universe was exactly the same up until John made his decision, then it had to happen that John would decide to have French Fries.

Now imagine a universe (Universe B) in which almost everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it.  The one exception is human decision making.  For example, one day Mary decided to have French Fries at lunch.  Since a person’s decision in this universe is not completely caused by what happened before it, even if everything in the universe was exactly the same up until Mary made her decision, it did not have to happen that Mary would decide to have French Fries.  She could have decided to have something different. 

The key difference, then, is that in Universe A every decision is completely caused by what happened before the decision – given the past, each decision has to happen the way that it does. By contrast, in Universe B, decisions are not completely caused by the past, and each human decision does not have to happen the way that it does. 

1. Which of these universes do you think is most like ours? (circle one)
Universe A          Universe B
Please briefly explain your answer:

For the following two questions you will be given a statement that is about one of the universes.  You will be asked to say whether the statement is about Universe A, B, or if it’s impossible to determine which universe the statement is about.

2. In this universe, there could be a supercomputer that accurately predicts exactly what a person will do by looking at what happened in the past.
Which universe is this statement about? 
Universe A          Universe B        Impossible to determine

3. In this universe, people have 10 fingers. 
Which universe is this statement about? 
Universe A          Universe B        Impossible to determine

4. In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and 3 children.  He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire.  Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family. 
Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?
YES    NO"

In the affect-neutral condition, participants were given the same material, except for question 4, which was replaced by the following question:

"4. In this universe, people are fully morally responsible for their actions.
Which universe is this statement about? 
Universe A          Universe B        Impossible to determine"

In condition 1, an answer of “no” to question 4 is considered an incompatibilist response, and an answer of “yes” is considered a compatibilist response.  In condition 2, an answer of “Universe B” to question 4 is considered an incompatibilist response, and an answer of “Impossible to Determine”  or “Universe A” is considered a compatibilist response.

Question 1 was designed to test whether subjects believe that our own universe is deterministic or indeterministic. Across conditions, nearly all participants (95%) judged that the indeterministic universe is more similar to our own.  Questions 2 and 3 were screening questions.  Question 2 was designed to assess whether the participants understood the deterministic nature of Universe A.  Question 3 was designed to ensure that participants could recognize that for some cases, the answer is impossible to determine.  A total of 14 participants missed one or more of the screening questions, and the subsequent analyses were performed on the remaining 47 participants. 

In the affect-laden condition, 72% gave compatibilist responses.  This is comparable to results obtained in experiments by Nahmias and colleagues. In the affect-neutral condition, on the other hand, the compatibilist response was given by less than 5% of the participants.  When we compare responses across conditions, we find that participants were significantly more likely to respond as compatibilists in the affect-laden condition than in the affect-neutral condition.[7]
1 about here***
     This first experiment replicated the finding (originally due to Nahmias et al.) that people have compatibilist intuitions when presented with vignettes that trigger affective responses. But it also yielded a new and surprising result. When subjects were presented with an affectively neutral vignette, they had predominantly incompatibilist intuitions. In fact, the difference between people’s intuitions in the two conditions was extremely large. Even though all subjects were given the same description of determinism, only 28% of subjects in the affect-laden condition gave incompatibilist responses whereas a full 95% of subjects in the affect-neutral condition gave incompatibilist responses. This pattern of results suggests that affect is playing a key role in generating people’s compatibilist intuitions.

    As we noted above, there are many ways of describing determinism, and the overall rate of incompatibilist responses might have been higher or lower if we had used a somewhat different description. Still, one cannot plausibly dismiss the high rate of incompatibilist responses in the affect-neutral condition as a product of some subtle bias in our description of determinism. After all, the affect-laden condition used precisely the same description, and yet subjects in that condition gave primarily compatibilist responses.

    A more serious worry lies in the possibility that subjects were influenced in some way by the precise wording of our questions. In particular, the question about moral responsibility in the affect-neutral condition (question #4) did not give subjects an opportunity to say explicitly that people could be morally responsible in both universes.[8] Perhaps some subjects had compatibilist intuitions but got confused by the wording of the question and ended up choosing a response that we scored as incompatibilist. To avoid this sort of confusion, we ran a second experiment using more clearly formulated questions.

5. Experiment 2

Like experiment 1, this experiment was designed to determine whether people would tend to give incompatibilist responses when affective and motivational factors are minimized.  We redesigned the task of experiment 1 so that the affect-neutral condition was much clearer.  We also took this opportunity to present participants with affect-laden conditions that were also simpler than that in experiment 1. We again predicted that participants would be more likely to respond as compatibilists in the affect-laden condition.

Participants: 59 undergraduates in introductory philosophy classes at the University of Utah participated in this study. 37 participants were male and 22 were female.

Procedure: Participants were given questionnaires in a classroom.  There were three conditions.  In all conditions, the description of the universes and the initial question were exactly the same as in Experiment 1.  In all conditions, this was followed by two screening questions:

"2. In Universe A, is it the case that everything that happens is, in principle, predictable?

3. In Universe B, is it the case that everything that happens is, in principle, predictable?
YES    NO"

In the affect-neutral condition, the screening question was followed by these questions:

"4. In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?

5. In Universe B, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?
YES    NO"

In the medium affect condition, the screening question was followed with:

"4. In Universe A, Bill kills his wife and children so that he can be with his secretary. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for killing his family?
    YES    NO"

In the high affect condition, the screening question was followed by:

"4. In Universe A, Bill stabs his wife and children to death so that he can be with his secretary. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for killing his family?
    YES    NO"

     In all conditions, an answer of “no” to question 4 is considered an incompatibilist response, and an answer of “yes” is considered a compatibilist response. 

     As in experiment 1, question 1 was designed to test whether subjects believe that our own universe is deterministic or indeterministic. Across conditions, most participants (90%) judged that the indeterministic universe is more similar to our own.  Questions 2 and 3 were screening questions designed to assess whether the participants understood the deterministic nature of Universe A and the indeterministic nature of Universe B.  A surprisingly high number of participants (19) failed at least one of these questions.  However, in hindsight, the screening questions are somewhat problematic.  For one might recognize that Universe A is deterministic but maintain that nothing could have the processing power to predict events in Universe A.  This was reflected in one participant’s marginalia on question 2:  “Predictable by who?”  As a result, we conducted our analyses on both the screened data and the unscreened data.

     As expected, subjects more frequently gave incompatibilist responses in the affect-neutral condition than in either of the affect-laden conditions. Most subjects in the affect-neutral condition gave incompatibilist responses (86% unscreened, 94% screened). In the medium-affect condition, considerably fewer subjects gave incompatibilist responses (56% unscreened, 66% screened). And in the high-affect condition, even fewer subjects gave incompatibilist responses (50% unscreened, 60% screened).[9] Similar results emerge for the screened set of participants.

    In this second experiment, we replaced the potentially confusing questions used in experiment 1 with questions that were considerably clearer and easier to read. But even with these clear questions, we obtained overwhelmingly incompatibilist responses in the affect-neutral condition. Indeed, a full 86% of subjects in that condition gave incompatibilist responses. This result strongly suggests that people tend to arrive at incompatibilist intuitions when they consider the issue in a more theoretical, affect-free manner.

    Surprisingly, subjects in the medium affect and high affect conditions did not show a strong tendency to give compatibilist responses. Rather, their responses were divided almost evenly between compatibilist and incompatibilist options. It is not clear why responses in the present experiment differed in this way from responses on experiment 1. Perhaps the one-sentence descriptions used here simply did not trigger as much affect as the more elaborate vignette used in experiment 1.

    Nonetheless, we again found that subjects gave significantly more compatibilist responses in the affect-laden conditions than they did in the affect-neutral condition. The overall pattern of results therefore suggests that affect is playing an important role in the process that generates people’s compatibilist intuitions.

    The results of the present experiment suggest several further lines of inquiry.  One question that strikes us as particularly interesting concerns how the folk would bring their conflicting attitudes into reflective equilibrium.  If a given subject responds as an incompatibilist to the affect-neutral case and as a compatibilist to the affect-laden case, then which position will the subject tend to settle on if the inconsistency is pointed out?  In a pilot study we began to explore this question by posing such a reflective equilibrium question.[10] We found that subjects were almost evenly split between compatibilist and incompatibilist responses when they were confronted with the task of resolving the inconsistency in folk intuitions that we found in the previous experiment.[11] This perhaps reflects the genuine difficulty of settling the normative question of whether, all things considered, one should embrace compatibilism or incompatibilism.  It also might mirror the split we find in the philosophical community.  But obviously this issue deserves much more extensive investigation. 

6. Psychological models

     Thus far, we have been providing evidence for the claim that different folk intuitions about responsibility are produced by different kinds of psychological processes. But if it is indeed the case that one sort of process leads to compatibilist intuitions and another leads to incompatibilist intuitions, which sort of process should we regard as the best guide to the true relationship between moral responsibility and determinism?

     Before we can address this question, we need to know a little bit more about the specific psychological processes underlying different types of folk intuitions. We therefore consider three plausible models. Then, in the next section, we ask how each of these models bears on the deeper philosophical questions about determinism and moral responsibility.

The performance error model

    Perhaps the most obvious interpretation of our results is that affect distorts lay judgments of responsibility, and this distortion explains compatibilist responses.  Research in social psychology provides abundant evidence that affect and motivation inappropriately bias attribution in many ways.  We are less likely to recall evidence that leads to an unwanted conclusion, we are less likely to believe evidence that leads to an unwanted conclusion, and we are less likely to use our critical resources to attack conclusions that are motivationally neutral for us (see Kunda 1999 for a review).  More pointedly, there is evidence that affect sometimes biases attributions of responsibility.  Lerner and colleagues found that when subjects’ negative emotions are aroused, they hold agents more responsible and more deserving of punishment, even when the negative emotions are aroused by an unrelated event (Lerner et al. 1998).  In their study, subjects in one condition, the anger condition, watched a video clip of a bully beating up a teenager; in the other condition, the neutral emotion condition, subjects watched a video clip of abstract figures (Lerner et al. 1998, 566).[12] Subjects were subsequently given what they were told was a different experiment designed to examine  how people assess responsibility for harm.  They read several stories describing harm that results from a worker’s negligence, and for each story they were asked to give ratings on questions concerning responsibility and punitiveness. One question was, “To what extent should the construction worker… be blamed for not preventing your injury, if at all”; another question was “To what extent should the construction worker… be punished for not preventing your injury, if at all?” (567).  Subjects in the anger condition (i.e., those who had been seen the bully video) gave higher responsibility and punishment ratings than subjects in the emotion-neutral condition.  So, although the subjects’ emotions were induced by the film, these emotions affected their responsibility judgments in unrelated scenarios.  The most natural way to interpret this is that the emotion inappropriately biased their assessments of responsibility. 

    In light of the evidence that affect and motivation can bias attributions generally, one model of the responses in our experiments is that the compatibilist responses (in the affect-laden conditions of our experiment) are similarly driven by affective bias.  Genuine, appropriate, judgments of responsibility emerge when the cues that trigger affective biases are eliminated.  So, in our affect-neutral condition, we see the subject’s real theory of responsibility revealed for what it is – incompatibilist.   

Affective-competence model

     Historically, one prominent view of moral assessment maintains that such assessment is essentially tied to emotion (Hume 1740/1978).  More recently, several psychologists and philosophers have argued that the basic, normal competence with moral judgment crucially depends on emotional response. Some of the empirical evidence for this comes from work on psychopathologies. Psychopaths and frontal lobe patients who lack normal moral emotions apparently have quite atypical intuitions about some moral scenarios (Blair 1995; Blair et al. 1997; Hauser forthcoming).  Their intuitions are not representative of the intuitions delivered by the normal moral competence.  Data like these have led some philosophers and psychologists to conclude that emotions play an important role in moral competence (Blair 1995; Nichols 2004b; Prinz forthcoming). 

     In keeping with such accounts of moral judgment, one might maintain that the proper assessment of responsibility is affect-laden.  That is, the basic competence underlying attributions of moral responsibility depends on emotional responses.  On this account, one might maintain that subjects in our affect neutral condition are like subjects from the relevant patient populations – they are arriving at moral intuitions without using the usual emotions, and they therefore end up with unrepresentative intuitions.   Thus, this proposal allows that affect plays a role in responsibility attribution but denies that this constitutes any kind of performance error.[13]

     A hard line affective-competence theorist might maintain that the responses to our affect-laden condition are simply the correct, genuine responses that emerge from our moral evaluation system, whereas the responses to the abstract, affect-neutral condition bypass our moral responsibility evaluation system entirely. On this alternative, the compatibilist might claim that our results provide no evidence that people are ‘intuitive incompatibilists,’ because the affect-neutral condition doesn’t even engage the moral responsibility mechanisms.[14]

Responsibility module model

     Finally, we need to consider the possibility that people’s responses are not being influenced by affect in any way. Perhaps people simply have an innate ‘moral responsibility module.'[15]This module could take as input information about an agent and his or her behavior and then produce as output an intuition as to whether or not that agent is morally responsible. Presumably, the module would not use the same kinds of processes that are used in conscious reasoning. Instead, it would use a process that is swift, automatic, and entirely unconscious.

     Here, the key idea is that only limited communication is possible between the module and the rest of the mind. The module takes as input certain very specific kinds of information about the agent (the fact that the agent is a human being, the fact that he knows what he is doing, etc.), but the vast majority of the person’s beliefs would be entirely inaccessible to processes taking place inside of the module. Thus, the module would not be able to make use of the person’s theory about the relationship between determinism and moral responsibility. It might not even be able to make use of the person’s belief that the agent is in a deterministic universe. Because these beliefs would be inaccessible inside of the module, the conclusions of the module could differ dramatically from the conclusions that the person would reach after a process of conscious consideration.

     In many ways, this modularity hypothesis resembles the performance error hypothesis we described above, in which affect biases the responses. Both hypotheses posit a swift, automatic process that makes use of only very limited information. There is, however, an important difference. Where the affective-bias hypothesis posits feelings, the modularity hypothesis posits a purely cognitive process. The intuitions generated by the module would be much like grammatical intuitions — produced by an automatic and unconscious process, but not laden with affect in any way.

    At this point, we do not have the evidence needed to decide between these competing models, but research on moral cognition is progressing rapidly, and we hope that it will soon be possible to say something more definitive than what we are able to say here. In the meantime, we offer a few suggestions for future research.

    To decide between the affective models and the modularity model, the obvious approach would be to rephrase the scenario in such a way that it triggered less affect. (For example, instead of saying that Bill savagely murdered his family, one could simply say something like: ‘Bill performed an immoral behavior.’) But this approach would likely be inconclusive. The problem is that (a) even a thinly described scenario might be sufficient to trigger an affective response and (b) a thinly described scenario might not be sufficient to trigger the moral responsibility module. Thus, merely changing the wording of the scenario might not be enough to decide between these models.

    A more difficult but perhaps more telling approach would be to run the experiment on subjects who are selectively impaired on the relevant affective responses. For example, if there is a population of people who do not have a normal response of moral anger to witnessing moral violations, they would provide an important contrast class.  If such individuals gave the same responses that normals did to questions on determinism and responsibility, we would have at least prima facie reason to conclude that the responses given by normals were not driven by affect. Conversely, if people who lack moral anger consistently gave incompatibilist responses in all conditions, we would have prima facie reason to conclude that the compatibilist responses of normal subjects were primarily a result of their affective reactions.

    Finally, one might look to evidence concerning the impact of general knowledge on people’s intuitions.[16] On the account we provided above, the output of a module is insensitive to higher-level general knowledge.  Visual illusions provide the best-known case.  Many visual illusions persist even when the agent knows the truth about the stimuli (Pylyshyn 1999).  When looking at the Müller-Lyer lines, even if we know that two lines are of equal length, our visual system will be unable to access this knowledge. The lines continue to look unequal even though we believe that they are perfectly equal. The key question is whether responsibility intuitions also exhibit this kind of persistent insensitivity to high-level facts.  For instance, when people learn that an agent was brainwashed, this will likely affect their considered judgment about the agent’s responsibility, but a module is unlikely to be sensitive to high-level information about such things as brainwashing. What we need to know now is whether people find, in cases like these, that the agent somehow continues to look morally responsible even when they have come to believe that he or she is not morally responsible. If so, we would have some evidence for the modularity view. If not, we would have strong evidence against it.

     Deciding between the two competing affective models might be even more difficult, but it does seem that certain kinds of evidence could play a helpful role here as well. First, the different responses to the affect-laden conditions in experiments 1 and 2 provide an intriguing basis for future exploration.  As noted earlier, the affect-laden conditions in experiment 2 were simpler and plausibly somewhat less lurid than the affect-laden condition in experiment 1.  On an affective-competence account, there’s no obvious reason why these differences would make subjects less likely to attribute responsibility to agents in Universe A.  However, an informal glance at the percentages suggests that these changes perhaps did make a difference – the percentage of compatibilist responses drops noticeably between experiment 1 (72%) to experiment 2 (50% for the high affect and 44% for the medium affect condition).  Of course this contrast is hardly definitive evidence when taken in isolation, but it might prove meaningful when integrated into a broader picture of the role of affect in people’s judgments of moral responsibility.

     Another experimental approach to deciding between the competing affective models is suggested by the work of Lerner and colleagues discussed above.  In their experiments, in addition to the anger/neutral-emotion conditions, there was a further manipulation based on “accountability.”  Basically, subjects were led to think that they would need to explain their judgments about the responsibility of the agent.  In the accountable condition, subjects were told that they would be interviewed by a researcher “studying how people determine responsibility for harm” (567).  In the unaccountable condition, subjects were told no such thing and expected no further contact concerning the experiment.  The experimenters found that subjects in the accountable condition were less punitive than subjects in the unaccountable condition, even if they had been induced to feel anger.  This provides an avenue into trying to tease apart the performance error model and the affective competence model.  On the performance error model, one expects that holding subjects accountable for their attributions should lead them to be less likely to hold people responsible in deterministic scenarios.  The affective competence model does not make this prediction.

     Still, it seems clear that this is not the sort of issue that will be resolved by a single crucial experiment. What we really need here is a deeper understanding of the role that affect plays in moral cognition more generally. (Presumably, if we had a deeper understanding of this more general issue, we would be able to do a better job of figuring out how empirical studies could address the specific question about the role of affect in judgments of moral responsibility.) But our inability to resolve all of the relevant questions immediately is no cause for pessimism. On the contrary, we see every reason to be optimistic about the prospects for research in this area. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in the ways in which affect can influence moral cognition – with new empirical studies and theoretical developments coming in all the time – and it seems likely that the next few years will yield important new insights into the question at hand.

7. Philosophical implications

     Our findings help to explain why the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is so stubbornly persistent. It seems that certain psychological processes tend to generate compatibilist intuitions, while others tend to generate incompatibilist intuitions. Thus, each of the two major views appeals to an element of our psychological makeup.

    But the experimental results do not serve merely to give us insight into the causal origins of certain philosophical positions; they also help us to evaluate some of the arguments that have been put forward in support of those positions. After all, many of these arguments rely on explicit appeals to intuition. If we find that different intuitions are produced by different psychological mechanisms, we might conclude that some of these intuitions should be given more weight than others. What we need to know now is which intuitions to take seriously and which to dismiss as products of mechanisms that are only leading us astray.

    Clearly, the answer will depend partly on which, if any, of the three models described above turns out to be the right one, and since we don’t yet have the data we need to decide between these competing models, we will not be able to offer a definite conclusion here. Our approach will therefore be to consider each of the models in turn and ask what implications it would have (if it turned out to be correct) for broader philosophical questions about the role of intuitions in the debate over moral responsibility.

    If compatibilist intuitions are explained by the performance error model, then we shouldn’t assign much weight to these intuitions.  For on that model, as we have described it, compatibilist intuitions are a product of the distorting effects of emotion and motivation.  If we could eliminate the performance errors, the compatibilist intuitions should disappear.  As a result, in what would be regarded as rationally optimal contexts for eliciting intuitions, commonsense will not yield compatibilist intuitions.

    If the modularity model is correct, the dialectical situation is more complex.  As a number of authors have noted, modularity involves a kind of trade-off. The key advantages of modules are that they usually operate automatically, unconsciously, and extremely quickly. But these advantages come at a price. The reason why modules are able to operate so quickly is that they simply ignore certain sources of potentially relevant information. So, as we noted earlier, even when we know that the lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion are the same length, we still have the visual illusion.  Perhaps in the assignment of moral responsibility, we are dealing with a similar sort of phenomenon — a ‘moral illusion.’ It might be that people have a complex and sophisticated theory about the relationship between determinism and moral responsibility but that the relevant module just isn’t able to access this theory. It continues to spit out judgments that the agent is blameworthy even when these judgments go against a consciously held theory elsewhere in the mind.

    Of course, defenders of compatibilism might point out that this argument can also be applied in the opposite direction. They might suggest that the module itself contains a complex and sophisticated theory to which the rest of the mind has no access. The conclusion would be that, unless we use the module to assess the relationship between determinism and moral responsibility, we will arrive at an impoverished and inadequate understanding. This type of argument definitely seems plausible in certain domains (e.g., in the domain of grammatical theory). It is unclear at this point whether something analogous holds true for the domain of responsibility attribution.[17]

    Finally, on the affective competence model, people’s affective reactions are an integral and essential part of the process by which they arrive at judgments of moral responsibility. Proponents of this model might admit that people sometimes arrive at incompatibilist intuitions when they try to make moral responsibility judgments without making any use of ordinary affective reactions, but they would deny that this finding shows that people are really ‘intuitive incompatibilists.’ Instead, they would say that incompatibilist intuitions are really superficial and that the normal way of arriving at judgments of moral responsibility makes essential use of affect. To the extent that people arrive at compatibilist judgments when they use this type of process, then, we are justified in saying that they are intuitive compatibilists.

    Interestingly, this model shows a strong affinity to the account proposed by P. F. Strawson in his classic (1962) paper “Freedom and Resentment.” There, Strawson argues that people’s abstract beliefs about determinism do not and should not disrupt their assignment of moral responsibility.  Rather, moral responsibility judgments are inextricably bound up with certain ‘reactive attitudes’ (resentment, gratitude, guilt, etc.), and if we want to understand what responsibility requires, we should begin by developing an accurate understanding of the attitudes on which they are based. Strawson’s claim was that, when these attitudes are properly understood, it can be seen that people’s ordinary judgments are compatibilist. This proposal is an interesting and important one. It can now form the basis for a testable hypothesis in the cognitive science of moral judgment.

8. Conclusion

    As we noted at the outset, participants in the debate over moral responsibility make use of an enormous variety of arguments. Theories from metaphysics, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and even quantum mechanics have all been shown to be relevant in one way or another, and researchers are continually finding new ways in which seemingly unrelated considerations can be brought to bear on the issue. The present paper has not been concerned with the full scope of this debate. Instead, we have confined ourselves to just one type of evidence – evidence derived from people’s intuitions.

    Philosophers who have discussed lay intuitions in this area tend to say either that folk intuitions conform to compatibilism or that they conform to incompatibilism.  Our actual findings were considerably more complex and perhaps more interesting. It appears that people have both compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions. Moreover, it appears that these different kinds of intuitions are generated by different kinds of psychological processes. To assess the importance of this finding for the debate over moral responsibility, one would have to know precisely what sort of psychological process produced each type of intuition and how much weight to accord to the output of each sort of process. We have begun the task of addressing these issues here, but clearly far more remains to be done.

Several people read an early draft of this paper and gave us great feedback.  We'd like to thank Bob Kane, Neil Levy, Al Mele, Stephen Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, Eddy Nahmias, Derk Pereboom, Lynne Rudder-Baker, Tamler Sommers, Jason Turner, and Manuel Vargas.  Thanks also to John Fischer for posting a draft of this paper on the Garden of Forking Paths weblog (  Part of this paper was delivered at the UNC/Duke workshop on Naturalized Ethics.  We thank the participants for their helpful comments.


1 Actually, compatibilists and incompatibilists argue both (1) about whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility and (2) about whether determinism is compatible with free will. As Fischer (1999) has emphasized, these two questions are logically independent. (One might plausibly argue that determinism is compatible with moral  responsibility but not with free will.) Here, however, our concern lies entirely with the first of the two questions — whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility.

2 We use the term ‘theory’ here loosely to refer to an internally represented body of information.

3 One virtue of Nahmias and colleagues’ question about moral responsibility is that the notion of ‘moral responsibility’ is supposed to be common between philosophers and the folk. That is, philosophers tend to assume that the notion of moral responsibility deployed in philosophy closely tracks the notion that people express when they attribute moral responsibility.  Furthermore, incompatibilists often specify that the relevant incompatibilist notion of free will is precisely the notion of free will that is required for moral responsibility (e.g., Campbell 1951).  Nahmias and colleagues also ask questions about whether the agent in the deterministic scenario “acts of his own free will,” and they find that people give answers consonant with compatibilism.  We find these results less compelling.  For the expression ‘free will’ has become a term of philosophical art, and it’s unclear how to interpret lay responses concerning such technical terms.  Moreover, incompatibilists typically grant that there are compatibilist notions of freedom that get exploited by the folk.  Incompatibilists just maintain that there is also a commonsense notion of freedom that is not compatibilist.

4 Although these results from Viney and colleagues are suggestive, the measure used for identifying determinists is too liberal, and as a result, the group of the subjects coded as ‘determinists’ might well include indeterminists. (The measure is reported in McIntyre et al. 1984.)  It remains to be seen whether this result will hold up using better measures for identifying determinists.

5 A related problem for the incompatibilist concerns the history of philosophy – if incompatibilism is intuitive, why has compatibilism been so popular among the great philosophers in history? An incompatibilist-friendly explanation is given in Nichols (forthcoming).

6 In our deterministic scenario, we say that given the past, each decision has to happen the way that it does. This scenario allows us to test folk intuitions about the type of compatibilism most popular in contemporary philosophy. Most contemporary compatibilists argue, following Frankfurt (1969), that an agent can be morally responsible for her behavior even if she had to act the way she did. (As we shall see, most subjects in our affect-laden condition give responses that conform to this view.) However, it would also be possible for a compatibilist to maintain that (1) we can never be responsible for an event that had to occur the way it did but also that (2) even if a particular behavior is determined to occur by the laws of nature, the agent does not necessarily have to perform that behavior. Our experiment does not address the possibility that the folk subscribe to this type of compatibilism. With any luck, that possibility will be investigated in future research.

7 The statistical details are as follows.  Across conditions, nearly all participants (95%) judged that the indeterminist universe is more similar to our universe.  This differs greatly from what would be expected by chance alone (χ2 goodness-of-fit (1, N=61) = 49.59, p <.0001, two-tailed).  In the affect-laden condition, 72% gave compatibilist responses.  This also differs significantly from what would be expected by chance alone (χ2 goodness-of-fit (1, N=25) = 4.840, p <.05, two-tailed).  In the affect neutral condition, over 95% of the participants gave the incompatibilist response, again differing significantly from what would be expected by chance alone (χ2 goodness-of-fit (1, N=22) = 18.182, p <.0001, two-tailed).  Finally, comparing across conditions, we find an extremely significant difference:  (χ2 (1, N=47) = 22.109,   p < .0001, two-tailed). Participants were more likely to respond as incompatibilists in the affect-neutral condition than in the affect-laden condition.  

8 We are grateful to Al Mele, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Manuel Vargas for pointing out this problem.

9 The statistical details for experiment 2 are as follows. Across conditions, 90% judged that the indeterminist universe is more similar to our universe, and this differs greatly from what would be expected by chance alone (χ2 goodness-of-fit (1, N=57) = 35.526, p <.0001, two-tailed). In the affect-neutral condition, 86% of the unscreened participants gave the incompatibilist response, which differs from what would be expected by chance alone (χ2 goodness-of-fit (1, N=21) = 10.714, p <.01, two-tailed). Of the screened participants, 94% gave the incompatibilist response, which again differs from chance alone (χ2 goodness-of-fit (1, N=16) = 12.250, p <.0001, two-tailed).  In the medium and high affect conditions, none of the responses differ from what would be expected by chance.
Focusing on the unscreened participants first, there is a significant difference between responses in the affect-neutral and medium affect conditions  (χ2 (1, N=39) = 4.353,   p< .05, two-tailed) and between responses in the affect-neutral and high affect conditions (χ2 (1, N=41) = 6.034,   p< .05, two-tailed). For the screened participants, there is a difference that approaches significance between responses to the affect-neutral and medium affect conditions (χ2 (1, N=28) = 3.429,   p= .064, two-tailed).  There is a clearly significant differences between responses to the affect-neutral and high affect conditions: (χ2 (1, N=26) = 4.513,   p< .05, two-tailed).

10 The design of the pilot study was modeled on experiment 2. Participants were asked both the high affect (Bill stabbing his wife) and the affect-neutral questions (counterbalanced for order). They  then answered the reflective equilibrium question:
Previous research indicates that when people are given question 3 above, they often say that Bill is fully morally responsible for killing his family.  But when people are given question 2 above, most people say that it is not possible that people in Universe A are fully morally responsible for their actions. Clearly these claims are not consistent. Because if it is not possible to be fully morally responsible in Universe A, then Bill can’t be fully morally responsible. 
We are interested in how people will resolve this inconsistency. So, regardless of how you answered questions 2 and 3, please indicate which of the following you agree with most:
i. In Universe A, it is not possible for people to be morally responsible for their actions.
ii. Bill, who is in universe A, is fully morally responsible for killing his family.

11 There were 19 subjects. 10 gave incompatibilist response to the reflective equilibrium question; 9 gave compatibilist responses.

12 These videos had been independently confirmed to be anger-inducing and emotionally neutral, respectively, and Lerner et al. corroborated this in their own experiment with a self-report measure.

13 Although an affective-competence model of moral judgment is suggested by the psychopathological results, it’s important to note that those results do not (yet) provide direct evidence that the emotions play a key role in the on-line moral competency. What Blair finds is that psychopaths have both a deficit in moral judgment and a deficit in emotional response.  But it’s possible that there is a developmental explanation for this correlation.  That is, it might be that emotions play a crucial developmental role in generating moral competence but that once the moral competence is established, the emotions no longer play an essential role in moral judgment.

14 As Jesse Prinz pointed out to us, an affective competence account can actually be consistent with an affective bias explanation of the results in our affect-laden conditions.  Even if it turns out that the responses to our affect-laden condition are the result of an affect-driven performance error, this would not exclude the possibility that the attribution of responsibility typically depends on an affective competence. 

15 As far as we know, no prior research has posited a moral responsibility module,
but there has been considerable enthusiasm for the more general idea that many basic cognitive capacities are driven by modules (Fodor 1983; Leslie 1994), and a number of authors have suggested that certain aspects of moral judgment might be subserved by module-like mechanisms (Dwyer 1999; Harman 1999; Hauser forthcoming).

16 Our discussion of modularity in this paragraph is indebted to comments from Stephen Morris and Tamler Sommers.

17 The distinction between modularity hypotheses and affective hypotheses first entered the philosophical literature in the context of the debate about the role of moral considerations in intentional action (Hauser forthcoming, Knobe forthcoming, Malle & Nelson 2003, Nadelhoffer forthcoming). In that context modularity hypotheses are usually regarded as vindicating folk intuitions.  But there is a key difference between that context and the present one.  The difference is that information about the moral status of the action might be accessible in an intentional action module, but information about determinism is unlikely to be accessible in a moral responsibility module.


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Editor's Postscript
For earlier pieces on this website on the falsehood of both Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, and thus the need for a quite different response with respect to determinism's challenge to freedom, go to After Compatibilism and Incompatibilism and Determinism True, Compatibilism and Incompatibilism Both False, The Real Problem. For a first statement of the falsehood of both of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, and thus of the need for a quite different response with respect to determinism's challenge to freedom, see Ted Honderich's book, A Theory of Determinism: the Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes, OUP, 1988, Chs. 7-10, which chapters make up the paperback The Consequences of Determinism, OUP, 1990. For a boiling-down, see How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem, OUP, 1993 and 2002. Also the papers in On Determinism and Freedom, Edinburgh University Press, 2005. You can also go to the new last chapter of the revised edition of How Free Are You?

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