Perceptions of Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility Reexamined

Article excerpt

The authors report results from two studies designed to reexamine Wilks (2004) findings that people accept blame and moral responsibility for their own immoral behaviors, but do not accept special credit and moral responsibility for their moral behaviors. Those data indicated that: (a) indeterminate free will, a construct not incorporated into major counseling theory, is causally related to immoral behavior; and (b) self-determinism, a construct foundational to counseling theory, is causally related to moral behavior. In order to readdress the validity of the original research, the present studies operationalized specific philosophical definitions as causal variables. One hundred, fifty-seven university students participated in the first study; 38 education/counseling professionals in the second. Chi-square analyses supported previous findings. Implications for counseling theory are presented.

Perceptions of Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility Reexamined

Wilks (2004) examined perceptions of self-attribution of causality in terms of personal credit and blame responses for actual behaviors done by the actor and perceived by the actor to be morally successful behaviors, and actual behaviors done by the actor and perceived by the actor to be immoral, or moral failures. Contrary to self-serving bias literature (Weiten, 2000), Wilks' (2004) results indicated that in relation to moral behaviors, actors do not accept meritorious credit for personal good behaviors, but do accept blame for and responsibility for actual self-perceived immoral behaviors. Further, chi-square analyses indicated that moral behaviors and immoral behaviors are perceived to be independent categories, not a continuum. With regards to immoral behaviors, participants selected blameworthy moral responsibility, and by definition, its corollary, indeterminate free will (Pereboom, 2001; Runes, 1962; Wilks, 2003), as the causal factor. However, in relation to moral behaviors, the participants reported perceptions of not being worthy of special credit and not being morally responsible, or by definition, the corollary, self determinism or compelling environmental determinism as the causal factor.

Although Wilks' (2004) findings were clearly unique, possible limitations of the research methodology included concerns about terminology. The present studies were designed to address these concerns by (a) using the terms blame and praise, rather than blame and special credit, and (b) using Runes' (1962) philosophical definitions of free will and self determinism. These definitions incorporate the corollaries: free will, blameworthiness and moral responsibility; and praiseworthiness, self-determinism, and the lack of perceived moral responsibility (Pereboom, 2001). Therefore, these studies were to some degree replications of the original Wilks (2004) study, but were also expansions designed to readdress the validity of the original instrument, the Moral Responsibility Inventory (Wilks, 2004). The hypotheses for these studies were as follows:

1. People are more likely to select indeterminate free will and report they deserve the blame for actual behaviors they have done which they consider to be immoral.

2. People are more likely to select self-determinism or strict-determinism and report they do not deserve praise for actual behaviors they have done which they consider to be moral.

3. People perceive immoral behaviors and moral behaviors as independent categories, not as a continuum.

Study One

Method

Participants. Participants were 157 undergraduate students (43 males and 114 females) enrolled in university classes. The mean age was 24. The race/ethnicity of the sample was 80% Caucasian; 14% Hispanic; 5% African-American; and 1% Native American.

Materials. A modified Moral Responsibility Inventory (MRI) was used to assess self-attributions of causality. Modifications included using the terms blame and praise, rather than blame and special credit, and operationalizing philosophical definitions as response categories. …