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Title: Continuity and discontinuity in moral reasoning: The "side effect" effect and utilitarianism in young children and adults.
Authors: Pellizzoni, Sandra
Keywords: moral judgment, development, utilitarian reasoning
Issue Date: 18-Apr-2008
Publisher: Università degli studi di Trieste
Abstract: The thesis is an investigation of moral abilities in preschoolers and adults. The general aim is evaluating the continuity hypothesis in moral development (Turiel, 2006). The work is divided into two main parts: the first part deals with the relation between intentionality judgments and moral evaluation as revealed by the ‘Side Effect’ Effect (SEE), the second part deals with utilitarian judgments elicited using variations of the Trolley and Footbridge dilemmas. The SEE was first documented in adults (Knobe, 2003) asked to consider scenarios in which agents dismiss information about the harming or helping side effects of their actions. Harmful side effects of these actions are judged as having been produced intentionally whereas the helpful side effects are not. Leslie, Knobe and Cohen (2006) reported a similar asymmetry in 4- and 5-years-olds. The present research, based on previous studies (Knobe, 2003a; Leslie, Knobe, & Cohen, 2006), it is intended to shed light on the computational processes that result in the SEE. Our experiments confirm that the effect is clearly present in young children. Further, data show that the crucial aspect on which both adults and children base their intentionality judgments is the agent’s foreknowledge of the effect of the action. In situations where the agent had a false belief (Experiments 5 and 8) or did not have foreknowledge of the valence of the outcome (Experiments 4 and 7), participants often formulated negative intentionality judgments. For this reason, we stress the importance of computing of intentionality derived from information on the epistemic mental states of the agent (Nuñez & Harris, 1998; Siegal & Peterson, 1998). Our results suggest that young children, like adults, understand and give meaning to an agent’s behavior on the base of his/her epistemic mental states. In research on adults (Experiment 3), the SEE persists when sentences such as “I do not care if the environment will be harmed, but we must increase profits. Let’s start the new program” is substituted with the sentence “I am sorry if the environment will be harmed, but we must increase profits”. Similarly, children continued to produce the SEE when the sentence “Andy does not care if Janine will get upset” is omitted (Experiment 7). The surprising, counterintuitive aspect of the SEE lies in participants’ asymmetrical attribution of intentionality when a disavowed side effect is negative but not when it is positive (Knobe, 2003a). From our results, it emerges that, if the agent foreknew the negative side effects of his actions, participants were likely to make an intentionality attribution. In other words, the effect emerges if the participants are informed about the agent’s epistemic mental state, more than the careless attitude, of the agent. However, when participants are presented with ambiguous situations, in which the agent could not have foreknown the outcome (Experiment 4) or the agent makes declarations of uncaring (Experiment 6), about half of the participants attributed intentionality to the agent. As for adults, when children are unaware about the agent’s foreknowledge of the outcome the sentence “I do not care” has a strong impact on the attribution of intentionality. The second part of the work investigated the extent to which young children and adults base judgments of actions aimed to protect others on moral utilitarianism. We based our research in this instance on Cushman, Young, and Hauser (2006) and Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley and Cohen (2001) findings. As shown in previous investigations, the majority of Italian adult participants (90%) in our research (Experiments 9 and 10) stated that it is permissible to change the direction of the trolley but it is not permissible to show a man from a footbridge (20%). Short moral dilemmas were given to 207 children illustrated with the help of wooden models. For example, the models for a child version of the so-called ‘footbridge consisted of a 45° inclined plane with a straight track and a footbridge above. At the end of the track were five Lego play-people. Standing on the footbridge were two other play-people: a small one (the main story character, John) and a big one (the potential victim). When asked to consider the rightness of intervening to sacrifice one person in order to save five others, the majority of children aged 3 to 5 years did not advocated intervention when the action required the agent to have physical contact with the victim, as in the ‘footbridge dilemma’, while the majority of children did advocate intervention when physical contact was not required, the ‘trolley dilemma’. Overall, the children’s responses were remarkably similar to those of adults in previous studies. No significant differences were found among age groups. The findings provide support for a continuity account of moral judgment during the course of human development. Although from our data it is not possible to choose among the models that try to give explanation to the asymmetry, it appears that children and adults show the same pattern of answers on the footbridge and the trolley scenarios. Further evidence for continuity awaits longitudinal and training studies. In line with some recent studies on the similarity of moral judgments in children and adults our data show that children seem to process moral stimuli early in life producing asymmetrical moral evaluations on the trolley and footbridge scenarios. Moreover, children seem to analyze the agents’ actions in term of mental state and frame these in terms of knowledge, caring attitude and outcome. These data seem to confirm the findings that point to an early capacity to compute intentionality based on moral information about potentially positive and negative outcomes and are consistent with the proposal that human minds are endow with an innate moral faculty, as recently argued by Dwyer (2007) and Hauser, (2006).
Description: 2006/2007
NBN: urn:nbn:it:units-7257
Appears in Collections:Scienze storiche, filosofiche, pedagogiche e psicologiche

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