Principles of karmic accounting: How our intuitive moral sense balances rights and wrongs

Samuel G. B. Johnson, Jaye Ahn

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We are all saints and sinners: Some of our actions benefit other people, while other actions harm people. How do people balance moral rights against moral wrongs when evaluating others’ actions? Across 9 studies, we contrast the predictions of three conceptions of intuitive morality—outcome- based (utilitarian), act-based (deontologist), and person-based (virtue ethics) approaches. Although good acts can partly offset bad acts—consistent with utilitarianism—they do so incompletely and in a manner relatively insensitive to magnitude, but sensitive to temporal order and the match between who is helped and harmed. Inferences about personal moral character best predicted blame judgments, explaining variance across items and across participants. However, there was modest evidence for both deontological and utilitarian processes too. These findings contribute to conversations about moral psychology and person perception, and may have policy implications.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104467
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Early online date22 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2021


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