Perceptions of Moral Responsibility and Self-Attribution: Unique Findings

By Wilks, Duffy | Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Moral Responsibility and Self-Attribution: Unique Findings


Wilks, Duffy, Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research


Abstract

Perceptions of self-attribution of causality (personal credit and blame for actual behaviors done by an individual and perceived by that individual to be morally successful behaviors) and actual behaviors done by an individual and perceived by that individual to be immoral or moral failures were examined. In contrast to some social psychology literature which provides evidence that humans have a tendency to attribute personal successes to themselves and personal failures to external factors, results of this study indicate that people do not accept meritorious credit for personal good behaviors, but do accept blame for and responsibility for actual behaviors they have done that are perceived to be immoral. Descriptions of the analyses and implications for counseling theory are presented.

Traditionally, philosophical argument links moral responsibility and blameworthiness or praiseworthiness as corollaries, holding that in order for a person to be blameworthy or praiseworthy for a behavior, that person must be morally responsible for the behavior (Pereboom, 1997, 2001). That is, moral responsibility is generally conceived of and experienced in terms of perceived credit and blame.

In addressing perceived responsibility, social psychology has produced a body of research documenting a human tendency toward making certain attributional inferences which may be biased or self-serving (Bradley,1978; Brown & Rogers, 1991; Burger, 1986). The self-serving bias refers to "the tendency to attribute one's successes to personal factors and one's failures to situational factors" (Weiten, 2000, p. 476). Such a bias means that a person takes credit for his or her successes, attributing causality to internal factors, but does not accept blame or responsibility for personal failures, instead attributing causality to external or situationai factors (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981). In the area of moral (good) behaviors, however, studies by other researchers have produced contrasting results.

For instance. Lamb, Lalljee, and Jaspars (1985) produced paradoxical findings on causal self-attributions, which did not reflect a self-serving bias. In their study, locus-of-control internals, people who characteristically report internal perceptions of causality, did not make such attributions. Rather, internals were more likely to view moral behavior as elicited and determined. Such deterministic findings did not provide a sound basis for claiming personal moral responsibility. On the other hand, locus-of-control externals, people who characteristically attribute causality to external factors, were more likely to view moral behavior as emanating from the person. Again, the concept of emanation did not provide a sound basis for claiming personal praiseworthy moral responsibility.

In another study (Wilks, 1995), secondary findings indicated that in the urea of actual behaviors done by individuals and perceived by those individuals to be morally successful behaviors, people do not accept meritorious credit for good behaviors. However, individuals do accept blame for and moral responsibility for actual behaviors they have done which are perceived to be immoral or moral failures. This article presents 8-year, cross-sectional data from a study designed to directly reexamine these secondary findings.

In this study, the phrase, moral behavior, referred to an actual behavior identified by the participants as one of the most morally good, loving things they had ever done. Immoral behavior was defined as an actual behavior identified by the participant as one of the worst, intentional acts they had ever done. Three hypotheses were formulated for the study. These were:

1. Individuals are more likely to report that they deserve the blame for actual behaviors they have done which they consider to be immoral.

2. Individuals are more likely to report that they do not deserve meritorious credit for actual behaviors they have done which they consider to be moral. …

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