Jonathan Phillips and Fiery Cushman recently published a paper in PNAS: Morality constrains the default representation of what is possible. The title of Jonathan’s accompanying Aeon article is somewhat more evocative: ‘But you can’t do that!’ Why immoral actions seem impossible.
This article (go read it now!) fits neatly in with (what I think of as) the overarching theme of Jonathan’s work: how moral and non-moral cognition relate to each other. It’s a really interesting thing to ponder, but I have not pondered it enough to do the general idea justice here!
Instead, I just wanted to focus on this one finding: when making a quick, intuitive, judgment about various alternatives for action, participants in the PNAS studies were relatively likely to judge immoral alternatives to be impossible. On reflection, by contrast, participants agreed that no-but-yeah, it would be possible for Bob to kill someone and steal their car in order to make it to the airport on time. It’s just that ‘he can’t do that!’ seems to be the immediate response.
I think this finding might provide a window on how different contexts influence moral judgments; in particular, how war influences moral judgments (of course that’s where my mind went). Is war a context where more things are possible? Where Bob can kill someone and steal their car? And if so, how does that sense of possibility relate to your moral judgment of Bob?
My first prediction would be that if we set some of Jonathan’s scenarios in a war context, but otherwise ran the same study, the “immoral alternatives” would no longer seem so impossible. All’s fair in love and war, right? My next question would be – who has the apparatus required for running reaction time studies, and wants to figure this out with me?*
*I can probably do this on my own, actually; all the materials are provided online (yay open science!). But that’s not as fun, is it.