The Effect of What We Think may Happen on our Judgments of Responsibility

Felipe De Brigard*, William J. Brady

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Recent evidence suggests that if a deterministic description of the events leading up to a morally questionable action is couched in mechanistic, reductionistic, concrete and/or emotionally salient terms, people are more inclined toward compatibilism than when those descriptions use non-mechanistic, non-reductionistic, abstract and/or emotionally neutral terms. To explain these results, it has been suggested that descriptions of the first kind are processed by a concrete cognitive system, while those of the second kind are processed by an abstract cognitive system. The current paper reports the results of three studies exploring whether or not considerations about possible future consequences of holding an agent responsible at a present time affect people's judgments of responsibility. The results obtained suggest first that the concrete system does not produce compatibilist judgments of responsibility unconditionally, even when facing appropriately mechanistic, reductionistic, emotionally loaded and concretely worded deterministic scenarios. Second, these results suggest that considerations about possible future consequences for innocent third parties that may follow as a result of holding an agent responsible affect people's judgment as to whether or not the agent is responsible for what she did. Finally, it is proposed that these results compliment extant evidence on the so-called "Side-effect effect", as they suggest that emotional reactions toward possible future side effects influence people's judgment of responsibility. The impact of these results for philosophy and moral psychology is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-269
Number of pages11
JournalReview of Philosophy and Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Philosophy


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