Dirty Work, Clean Hands: The Moral Psychology of Indirect Agency

by Neeru Paharia, Karim S. Kassam, Joshua D. Greene & Max H. Bazerman

Overview — When powerful people do morally questionable things, they rarely interact directly with their putative victims. Mobsters have hit men. CEOs have vice presidents, lawyers, and accountants. More specifically, the powerful are likely to carry out their intentions through the actions of other agents, with varying degrees of explicit direction and control. This working paper describes four studies that explore the effects of such "indirect agency" on moral judgment. Key concepts include:

  • Results of these studies suggest that heightened awareness of people's sometimes dubious motivations for acting indirectly, and the organizational structures that facilitate them, may be a useful safeguard against the abuse of power.
  • Acting indirectly through another can hide the fact that one has caused harm, hide the fact that one knowingly chose to cause harm, and hide the extent of one's control over the harmful outcome.
  • Causing harm indirectly through another can protect harm-doers, and thus harm society in a more subtle and insidious way. This is important to know, given that many of the greatest crimes against society are perpetrated by powerful people who carry out their intentions through others.

Author Abstract

When powerful people cause harm, they often do so indirectly through other people. Are harmful actions carried out through others evaluated less negatively than harmful actions carried out directly? Four experiments examine the moral psychology of indirect agency. Experiment 1 reveals effects of indirect agency under conditions favoring intuitive judgment, but not reflective judgment, using a joint/separate evaluation paradigm. Experiment 2 demonstrates that effects of indirect agency cannot be explained by perceived lack of foreknowledge or control on the part of the primary agent. Experiment 3 indicates that reflective moral judgment is sensitive to indirect agency, but only to the extent that indirectness signals reduced foreknowledge and/or control. Experiment 4 indicates that effects of indirect agency result from a failure to automatically consider the potentially dubious motives of agents who cause harm indirectly.

Paper Information