Rather unsurprising study results, titled ‘No Harm, No Foul,’ demonstrate that we judge the morality of choices by outcome — “We call the same decision immoral when it leads to a bad outcome, but moral when it leads to a good outcome” — and that we have a penchant both for punishing choices (or choicer-makers) that lead to bad outcomes and for not addressing bad decisions until they lead to bad outcomes. In one of the studies Hanson comments on at Overcoming Bias, participants who at first rated a behaviour as ethical changed their rating when the behaviour then resulted in undesirable consequences, so they were not operating on a hindsight bias (the situation when we know only the outcome and not the details of the decision-making); “in other words, people will see it as entirely appropriate to allow a decision’s outcome to determine their assessment of the decision’s quality.”
The studies’ authors then note:
“Utilitarianism … holds that an action is right if it produces (or tends to produce) the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people affected by the action…. Actions [according to utilitarianism] are neither good nor bad: their ‘nature’ is judged based on their consequences.
“Our research presents a challenge for the utilitarian reasoning. If an individual’s choice produces a positive outcome due purely to chance, should the actor therefore be praised? Is it reasonable to encourage or reward behavior that resulted in favorable outcomes, not because the actor willed that outcome but thanks to good fortune? Our findings suggest that the nature of outcome information is likely to influence people’s judgments of the ethicality of a decision-maker’s actions. Thus, actions which produced negative outcomes might be perceived as more unethical than similar actions which produced positive outcomes even in cases in which bad or good fortune was the primary cause behind those outcomes.”
They go on to say:
“The tendency demonstrated in our studies [23p pdf] might lead people to blame others too harshly for making sensible decisions that have unlucky outcomes. … Too often, we let ethically questionable decisions slide for a long time until they result in negative outcomes, even in cases in which such outcomes are easily predictable.”
Robin Hanson, commenting on the studies, says: “This makes morality look more like a social convention for who we can blame for what, rather than a direct guide to decision making.”