At this point, it is pretty clear is that people’s moral judgments affect a surprisingly large number of their judgments that do not seem to be straightforwardly moral (e.g., belief, causation, doing vs. allowing, freedom, happiness, innateness, intentional action, knowledge, love, and so on)
The sheer number of different judgments affected by morality provides some reason against continuing to search for separate explanations for each effect. Rather, it looks as though we should be searching for ways in which the various effects of morality may be unified. Of course, the sort of explanation that could unify these various effects would have to be so abstract that it could be playing a role in each of these diverse kinds of judgments.
In a new paper, we propose that the key to understanding how these effects can be unified is to begin thinking about the role of alternative possibilities. The basic idea is that our way of understanding many aspects of the world involves not only thinking about the things that actually happened but also considering other alternative ways that things could have happened but didn’t. Along these lines, our proposal has two key components:
(1) Morality affects which alternative possibilities are relevant.
(2) Each of the ordinary judgments affected by morality involve the representation of alternative possibilities in some way or another.
To test this unifying framework, we took the original materials from four previous studies which showed that agents who acted immorally (vs. neutrally) were more thought to have acted freely, caused the outcome that occurred, did something rather than allowed it to happen, and acted more intentionally. Using the original materials, we both replicated the four original effects, and also found that changes in the morality of the agent’s action impacted participants’ judgments of the relevance of alternative possibilities. Critically though, we also found that participants’ judgments of the relevance of alternatives mediated the effect of morality on judgments of freedom, causation, doing vs. allowing, and intentional action.
We then sought to further confirm this general framework by manipulating rather than measuring changes in the relevance of alternatives.