the omission effect in moral cognition
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Evolutionary Perspectives on Morality

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The Omission Effect in Moral Cognition. Evolutionary Perspectives on Morality. By: Sarah Belarde, Tauras Vilgalys , and Scott Wolfson. Morality by Dawkins. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v= MLBd6_9Liic. Moral Wrongness.

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the omission effect in moral cognition
The Omission Effect in Moral Cognition

Evolutionary Perspectives on Morality

By: Sarah Belarde, TaurasVilgalys, and Scott Wolfson

morality by dawkins
Morality by Dawkins
  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLBd6_9Liic
moral wrongness
Moral Wrongness

A. Allan sees that there is a person on sidetrack B. Allan presses B. The person is killed.

B. Bart wants to watch the train go through sidetrack B. Before reaching for the button he noticed the person on the B side. Bart continues to press the B button and the person is killed.

C. Charles sees there is a person on the main track. He knows he can redirect the train around the person using sidetrack A. Charles presses the maintain route button and the person is killed.

D. David sees that there is a person on the main track. He sees that sidetrack A can direct the train around the person. David does not press any buttons and the person is killed.

what is morality
What is Morality?
  • How individuals decide what actions are permissible and punishable
  • Determined by evolved cognitive adaptations organized to solve evolutionary problems
the omission effect
The Omission Effect
  • Hindus believe it is morally wrong to kill a cow, but less wrong to let a cow starve.
    • Omission- not talking action or allowing something to happen
    • Commission- Taking an action or doing something
  • What explains this intuition that a violation by omission is less wrong than a violation by commission?
explaining the omission effect
Explaining the Omission Effect
  • Why does choosing inaction make an individual less guilty?
  • Explanations:
    • Plausible Deniability: Did not actually do anything, can tell themselves they could not have done anything
    • Regret: Emotions are amplified for actions. You can say well that would happen regardless of whether or not I was involved.
two competing hypothesis to explain the omission effect
Two competing hypothesis to explain the Omission Effect
  • Omissions are also condemned less harshly by other group members
  • 1) Causality theory: physically causation is the essential moral violation
  • 2) Novel Hypothesis: omissions produce little material evidence and are therefore more transparent.
third parties
Third Parties
  • Condemnation of an individual is costly, but the cost can be spread among multiple individuals
  • The amount of condemners depends upon the amount of available evidence
  • Omissions provide less evidence about the intentions of the actor, therefore it is more difficult to achieve a group consensus
experiment
Experiment
  • Scenarios
    • Opaque Actions: Actor does nothing, intentions unclear
    • Transparent Actions: Actor does a definitive action
    • “Do nothing button”: An option that does not effect the outcome. Public evidence of individuals response
    • Tested for: Moral Wrongness and Punishment
moral wrongness1
Moral Wrongness

A. Allan sees that there is a person on sidetrack B. Allan presses B. The person is killed.

B. Bart wants to watch the train go through sidetrack B. Before reaching for the button he noticed the person on the B side. Bart continues to press the B button and the person is killed.

C. Charles sees there is a person on the main track. He knows he can redirect the train around the person using sidetrack A. Charles presses the maintain route button and the person is killed.

D. David sees that there is a person on the main track. He sees that sidetrack A can direct the train around the person. David does not press any buttons and the person is killed.

results
Results
  • With direct causality, transparency did not matter
  • With indirect causality, transparent condition was harsher than opaque condition
  • In the opaque condition, causality was worse than indirect
  • Even controlling for attention and explicit knowledge, opting out more wrong than doing nothing in both unstated and stated conditions (when they stated what they knew/didn’t state anything)
  • When asked to review how easy it would be to convince others in each scenario, evidence ratings correlated with wrongness and punishment
  • Evidence was viewed to be stronger in opaque than transparent
most robust findings
Most Robust Findings
  • Greater punishment for transparent offenses than opaque ones, supports notion that moral wrongness is tuned by how provable/well supported the statement act is
main points
Main Points
  • Moral judgment is based less on causality than the transparency of an action.
  • If an action is more transparent, it is taken to be easier to prove to unrelated third parties.
  • This transitive property aligns the individual with group interests; causing them to condemn more viciously when evidence is present and condemnation more prevalent.
critical concerns
Critical Concerns
  • There is an issue of meta-analysis in this study. Throughout the different experiments, some effects emerged and disappeared even from the same setup. I am slightly concerned that they did not do any meta-analysis and instead assumed the first result (coincidentally the one that supported their hypothesis) was accurate and then tried to explain the contradicting result away.
  • One of the things they did in this study was give the participant a privileged perspective into the perpetrators mind. For example, they made it explicitly clear that they were aware a person would be killed and the other options. However, what if a large amount of the omission bias is drawn from ignorance about what precisely happened? I would like to see related studies examining how transparency and causality influence moral judgment in non-perfect conditions.
discussion questions
Discussion Questions
  • The meta-moral question: should it matter whether someone acts causally or transparently in judging the morality of their action?
  • Do you consciously judge/voice concerns depending on how likely others are to agree with you? If you don’t think you do, can you support that with specific examples from your past?
  • In your basic experience, does the omission effect hold true? Do you feel less guilty letting something happen than when you particularly cause it to happen? Do you blame other people less?
  • Do you feel as if you naturally commit a naturalistic fallacy while analyzing situations? Aka, do you ignore any external, objective morality in favor of the biologically imprinted one?
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