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Moral responsibility and the ‘honor box’ system

If you’ve worked in an office, you’re probably familiar with “honor box” coffee service. Everyone helps themselves to stewed coffee, adds to the lounge’s growing filth, and deposits a nominal sum in the honor box, with the accumulated proceeds being used to replenish supplies. Notoriously, this system often devolves into a tragedy of the commons, where too many people drink without paying. Unless some philanthropic soul goes out of pocket to cover freeriders, the enterprise goes in the red, and everyone’s back to extortionate prices at the cafe.

Fortunately, the tragedy of the honor box may be readily ameliorated; if images of eyes are placed prominently near the coffee service, deposits increase. Or so Bateson and her colleagues (2006) found: the take in a Psychology Department’s honor box (computed by amount contributed per liter of milk consumed) was nearly three times as large when the posted payment instructions were augmented with an image of eyes as when they were augmented with an image of flowers.

On the standard interpretation, the eyes remind people that they may be seen – not so easy to stiff the honor box in front of a disapproving colleague – and pay a reputational cost for freeriding. Since human beings are social organisms sensitive to reputational considerations, they may thereby be moved to donate.

Participants in such studies are not typically debriefed, so we don’t know for sure what they were thinking. But the most likely reading is that people are, in a sense, not thinking much of anything. That is, the Watching Eyes Effect is supposed to involve an unconscious, effortless, processing, rather than conscious, concerted calculation; the eyes are hypothesized to influence behavior without those influenced being aware.

If people aren’t typically aware of the Watching Eyes Effect when they’re being affected by it, what might they think, if they found out afterwards? A cheapskate with a policy of freeriding might feel a little resentful; he’s been made to do something he doesn’t judge to be sensible. A more upright sort might think she’s done the right thing, but not for the right reasons; doing it because you’re watched is not the same thing as doing it because it’s decent, honest, or fair. Those who favor fair play only when it burnishes their reputation might also have qualms, since Watching Eyes may influence people in conditions conducive to anonymity (e.g., Haley and Fessler 2005: 250). In none of these cases does “I did it because of the eye spots,” sound like a compelling rationale.

The Watching Eyes Effect is part of a large family of studies identifying influences on behavior that are both unconscious and unexpected. In sum: you may not know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, and if you did know, you might not like it. Evidently, the subversive unconscious is everywhere at work (though these workings may be more absurd than Oedipal). Should you take this prospect seriously, you ought begin to worry about who — or what — is running your show. You should begin to wonder about the extent to which you exert rational control over your behavior: maybe the “rational animal” isn’t so rational after all. This worry, if I’m right, is a worry about what philosophers call agency, the ability of a person to order her behavior such that the attribution of moral responsibility – and so, the assigning of credit and blame – is appropriate.

If the foregoing is right, we ought experience skeptical anxiety about morally responsible agency. But we needn’t remain in a state of anxiety. When we put in the right sort of theoretical work, we can see that people do exert the sort of rational control over their lives fitting them for the honorific agent, the multitude of disturbing scientific notwithstanding. But that’s a story for another post.

This post originally appeared on the Washington University in St. Louis Centre for the Humanities website on April 13, 2015, and on the Philosophy of Brains blog on May 12, 2015. It has been slightly modified for the OUPblog.

Featured image credit: “7/365 – Blue eyes”, by Axel Naud. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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