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Do We Judge Those Who Don't Help Even When They Are Unable?

Do We Judge Those Who Don’t Help Even When They Are Unable?

Traditional philosophical wisdom says that “ought implies can,” or in other words, if you are unable to do something, then you are not morally obligated to do it. A new study, however, seems to debunk this age-old theory and shows that people routinely attribute moral obligations to those who cannot possibly fulfill them.

“In one experiment, participants considered a case where two swimmers are drowning,” said postdoctoral researcher Dr. Wesley Buckwalter of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo.

“Because the drowning swimmers are so far apart, the lifeguard on duty can save one or the other but not both of them. Despite acknowledging that the lifeguard is literally unable to save both swimmers, the overwhelming majority of participants judged that the lifeguard was still obligated to do so.”

The researchers conducted a total of eight experiments to evaluate the link between a range of moral requirements and abilities in ordinary moral situations. Participants were assigned to groups, asked to read a story that described different inabilities (short-term or long-term, physical, or psychological), and then asked to answer questions about moral obligation or blame.

The findings revealed important differences between the way people perceive physical and psychological inabilities.

“People are less willing to believe that an agent is unable to drive a car due to clinical depression than due to physical injury,” said Professor John Turri. “Moreover, people are more willing to blame agents suffering from psychological inabilities.

“This asymmetry may reflect the assumption that people can just get over mental inabilities, such as clinical depression, in ways that they cannot just get over, say, a broken leg.”

The findings may also apply to current controversial issues such as the refugee crisis in Europe and immigration reform at the forefront of U.S. politics.

“One important practical question is the extent to which these nations have the ability to help all those in need around the world,” said Buckwalter. “But another question involves figuring out what these nations have a moral obligation to do.

“Our results show that, in most people’s minds, the moral question is not settled simply by learning, for instance, that a nation cannot take in more refugees.”

The research team is currently looking into why people are more likely to blame or stigmatize those with mental inabilities. A better understanding of these issues could have important social benefits, such as improving the treatment and experience of mental health patients.

Source: University of Waterloo

People and responsibility photo by shutterstock.

Do We Judge Those Who Don’t Help Even When They Are Unable?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Do We Judge Those Who Don’t Help Even When They Are Unable?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Nov 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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