Emotional responses to a scenario will override the rational belief that complete determinism negates moral responsibility, according to expermental philosopher Joshua Knobe:
3:AM: So can you say a little about the kind of experiments you’ve been doing. For instance, there’s the experiments investigating intuitions about freewill that you’ve written about which might strike readers as being a strange thing to try and run experiments about.
JK: Yes, well, since the very beginning of philosophy and the Ancient Greek period philosophers have been debating about whether freewill is compatible with determinism. So the question is, if everything we do is completely determined, if each thing we do is completely determined by what happened beforehand, then can we still be morally responsible for the things we are doing? And some people say, ‘Obviously not! If everything is determined then we couldn’t be morally responsible for them.’ But some people say, ‘No, that’s no problem at all. Whether you are morally responsible has got nothing to do with whether you are determined. These are just two completely separate issues.’ So what we were interested in was what were the psychological roots of this conflict.
So we were interested in finding out what it is within people that is drawing them to the one side or to the other side of the issue. So we thought; maybe it’s people’s abstract theory that is drawing them to the idea that someone who is determined cannot be morally responsible. And that it’s people’s more immediate emotional responses that are drawing them to the view that people who are totally determined can be morally responsible. So we tried to devise these questions that would make people think about the issue either from a more abstract, theoretical perspective or from a more concrete, emotional, immediate perspective. So I guess the study you already know is the one where everyone was told about this universe, Universe A, where everything was determined. And then some people were just asked in the abstract, in Universe A, could anyone be held to be morally responsible for anything they do? And people said overwhelmingly no, absolutely not. We got the same response in America, in Japan, in India, in Columbia. Everyone was saying the same thing, giving the same answer: definitely not! You cannot hold anyone morally responsible. No one can be morally responsible in this universe. But then in the other condition, we asked a more concrete question. So we said, ‘Consider this one guy, his name is Bill, and he lives in this determinist Universe A. So this guy, Bill, he falls in love with his secretary. So he decides to leave his wife and family. Then he sets up an incendiary device to burn them all to death.’ And then we asked whether they thought this one guy, Bill, was morally responsible for what he did. And in this case people say ‘Totally!’ That guy Bill is morally responsible even though he lives in Universe A. Everyone said this. But in the other condition everyone said that no one in Universe A could be morally responsible. So it seems as if people who have been made to think about it in this more emotional way are giving one answer and people being asked to think about it in a more rational, more abstract way, are giving the exact opposite answer. And so this is a significant difference and helps us to think about why we believe what we believe.
-from Indie Rock Virtues – Josh Knobe interviewed by Richard Marshall