"There have been many attempts to understand how people make intuitive moral judgments, but they all had significant flaws. In 2014, we proposed a model of moral judgment, called the Agent Deed Consequence (ADC) model - and now we have the first experimental results that offer a strong empirical corroboration of the ADC model in both mundane and dramatic realistic situations," said lead author Veljko Dubljevi.
Moral judgment is a tricky subject. For example, most people would agree that lying is immoral. However, most people would also agree that lying to Nazis about the location of Jewish families would be moral.
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To address this, the ADC model posits that people take three things into account when making a moral judgment: the agent, which is the character or intent of the person who is doing something; the deed, or what is being done; and the consequence, or the outcome that resulted from the deed.
"This approach allows us to explain not only the variability in the moral status of lying but also the flip side: that telling the truth can be immoral if it is done maliciously and causes harm," said Dubljevi.
To test this complexity and the model, researchers developed a number of scenarios that were logical, realistic and easily understood by both lay people and professional philosophers. All of the scenarios were evaluated by a group of 141 professional philosophers with training in ethics.
In one part of the study, a sample of 528 study participants from the U.S. also evaluated different scenarios in which the stakes were consistently low. This means that the possible outcomes were not dire.
In a second part of the study, 786 study participants evaluated more drastic scenarios - including situations that could result in severe injury or death.
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In the first part, when the stakes were lower, the nature of the deed was the strongest factor in determining whether an action was moral. Whether the agent was lying or telling the truth mattered the most, rather than whether the outcome was bad or good. But when the stakes were high, the nature of the consequences was the strongest factor. The results also show that in the case of a good outcome (survival of the passengers of an airplane), the difference between a good or a bad deed, although relevant for the moral evaluation, was less important.
"The findings from the study showed those philosophers and the general public made moral judgments in similar ways. This indicates that the structure of moral intuition is the same, regardless of whether one has training in ethics. In other words, everyone makes these snap moral judgments in a similar way," said Dubljevi.
While the ADC model helps us understand how we make judgments about what is good or bad, it may have applications beyond informing debates about moral psychology and ethics. The study appeared in the Journal of Plos One.