Reasons or Rationalisations  /

Reasons or Rationalisations: Inconsistencies in Endorsing, Articulating and Applying Moral Principles

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Description: Moral dumbfounding occurs when people maintain a moral judgment even though they cannot provide reasons for it. In recent years, questions have been raised about whether dumbfounding is a real or artefactual phenomenon. In one challenge to the existence of dumbfounding, participants' judgments were attributed to either harm-based reasons (believing an action may lead to harm) or to norm-based reasons (breaking a moral norm is inherently wrong). Attribution was determined by participants' endorsing of either reason. Participants who endorsed a reason were excluded from analysis, and instances of moral dumbfounding seemingly reduced to non-significance. The current research aims to test the claim that participants’ judgments in the dumbfounding paradigm can be attributed to these reasons. We argue that endorsing alone does not provide evidence that a judgment is grounded in a given reason. We present two studies that develop more robust exclusion criteria accounting for (a) participants' ability to articulate either reason, and (b) the application of harm-based reasons across differing contexts. Study 1 included an open-ended response option immediately after the presentation of a moral scenario. Responses were coded for mention of either harm-based or norm-based reasons. Participants were excluded from analysis if they both articulated and endorsed a given reason. Using these revised criteria for exclusion, we found evidence for dumbfounding, as measured by the selecting of an admission of not having reasons. Study 2, building on Study 1, included three questions assessing the consistency with which people apply harm-based reasons. As predicted, few participants consistently applied, articulated, and endorsed harm-based reasons, and further evidence for dumbfounding was found.

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