Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto: “Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry”

In “Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry,” Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto seek to give an account of how preference and principle interact in our reasoning process. While decisions are often reduced to being labeled either exclusively principled or exclusively driven by preferences, Knowles and Ditto believe that the reality of decision-making is that choices are often a product of our using dispassionate, cognitive processes to reason towards conclusions that we find preferential or palatable.

For example, when male subjects were asked to make a hiring decision for a stereotypically male dominated profession (construction), they generally ranked education as a more important criteria than job experience. However, faced with a male applicant with more job experience and a female one with more education, the male subjects generally reversed their rankings, holding work experience to be more important. In other words, when our dispassionate reasoning process is faced with a difficult choice (is education or work experience more important?), we may come to a decision we believe to be solely principled that is in fact a conclusion we accept because of some preference we harbor (e.g. that we would prefer to hire a man to work construction).


Knowles and Ditto call this process casuistry. In their words, “casuistry is a species of motivated reasoning, a kind of intuitionist sleight of mind that permits a person to perceive preference-based opinions as grounded in principle.” (17)  Eventually, “the picture that emerges is one in which people value and utilize principle-based reasoning, but go about the process in a biased fashion such that certain principles are ‘favored’ in a given judgment context because they are consistent with, and provide intellectual support for, the conclusion that is most preferred in that context.” (16)

Motivated Reasoning

In testing people’s method of reasoning in various situations, Knowles and Ditto noticed that individuals often will employ deontological principles (certain acts are inherently right or wrong, irrespective of the consequences they produce) in relation to one issue, while employing consequentialist principles (acts are only right or wrong based on the consequences they produce, i.e. nothing is inherently wrong) in relation to another issue. The apparent problem with this is that deontolgical and consequentialist reasoning are often opposed in moral debates and are often thought of as directly contradicting each other. The implication then is that individuals may use internally consistent modes of reasoning, which can be defended in a philosophical debate as principles, to reach the conclusions that are in accordance with their preferences. In other words, “with a menu of principles at the ready, people may comfortably select the one capable of justifying the conclusion they find most emotionally satisfying—while at the same time preserving the view of self as a logical and well-meaning thinker.” (20)

The Trolley Car Problem

To explain, Knowles and Ditto turn to the famous trolley car problem in which a person must choose whether to push a man large enough to stop the trolley onto the tracks (killing the man and harming no one else) or to let the trolley pass unimpeded, which will then certainly kill the five people in the trolley’s path (as they unaware of the trolley and cannot be warned) . In a variation on this famous dilemma, some individuals were asked whether they would push “Tyrone Payton” onto the train tracks to save “100 members of the New York Philharmonic,” whereas others were asked if they would push “Chip Ellsworth III” onto the tracks to save “100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra.” (21)  They found that liberal college students, who generally show an extremely strong aversion to being prejudiced, were generally more reluctant to turn to consequentialist reasoning (end justifies the means) to sacrifice the presumably black man to save the presumably white orchestra than to sacrifice the presumably white man to save the presumably black orchestra. In other words, given their strong preferences, when faced with a situation that appears morally equivalent, a significant number of the college students appealed to different moral principles because of a personal desire that seems irrelevant to the moral situation.

Race and Casuistry

Knowles and Ditto assert that, “casuistry appears to be a quite general component of everyday racial thinking, deployed in order to justify preferences that advantage or disadvantage members of historically subordinated groups.” In today’s society, in which overt racism is nearly universally condemned, Knowles and Ditto contend that racism has become much more subtle and that casuistic reasoning provides this new sort of racism with a way to exist under a facade of principle. They also claim that one can the same general value (colorblindness) and use it to reason towards policies that one prefers: “distributive colorblindness supports the use of redistributive racial policies, such as affirmative action, whereas procedural color-blindness constitutes a potent argument against such policy.” (42)

Final Thoughts

In their work, Knowles and Ditto seek more than explanations for our applying principles and preferences; they ask if we have justifications for having certain principled stands in response to preferences. They refer to the philosopher David Hume who believed that, “our affective reactions revealed an underlying ‘moral sense’ that could be used like a moral compass to divine truly ethical behavior.” (48) In other words, perhaps these preferences are not arbitrary and subjective things that have no moral worth as they are often classified. Perhaps, when we reason from our preferences, we can be responding to important moral sentiments (e.g. getting angry when we perceive inequality) in ourselves that lead us to find the right principles.

I really enjoyed reading this article, but, in my opinion, there were times in the article Knowles and Ditto seemed hasty in concluding that a person was following preferences rather than principles. For example, they noted that liberals tended to feel that “it is morally permissible to violate laws that one believes to be unjust” when the person was an anti death-penalty physician, while they showed greater disapproval for someone breaking the law based on their conscience when it was the anti-abortion pharmacist. Thus, they claimed people’s personal preferences lead them to have contradictory views on the principle that breaking the law based on your conscience should be done. However, these two opinions can actually be perfectly consistent if the overarching principle is, “it is only morally permissible to violate unjust laws when the laws one perceives as unjust are actually unjust.” In general, I think Knowles and Ditto were uncharitable to principles (and were too quick to see only preferences), as they overlooked certain possibilities of apparent inconsistencies in reasoning being resolvable by principles that are not fully articulated or evident.

6 Responses to Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto: “Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry”

  1. tae0000 says:

    Hi,this is a quite extensive summary. In this summary, you said college students, motivated by their “desire,” appeal to different moral principles when they face a problem that is morally equivalent. Can you explain what this “desire” is, and the underlying mechanism that fuels this desire?

  2. jrpote says:

    Brian, nice post! Since we read the same article and may have similar reservations, I was wondering whether you could say more about how you thought they were uncharitable to principle and the role of unarticulated principles.

    I did think that their treatment of “principle-based explanations” as “causal stories” of our moral and political judgments was kind of awkward. This awkwardness seemed especially pronounced when they ran together their discussions of causal processes and normative legitimacy. I haven’t untangled this mess in my mind yet, but it’s times like these that propositional attitudes seem like the strangest things in the world…

  3. Kam says:

    Great post.

    The debate surrounding the view that “it is morally permissible to violate laws that one believes to be unjust” is certainly a thorny one. It is interesting to frame that debate within the context of ideology. Also, I appreciated your drawing the crucial distinction between deontological and consequentialist principles.

    – Kam –

  4. anna says:

    Really interesting post–this theory seems particularly applicable to judicial decision-making, where decisions often are framed in a logic and precedent but seem (for better or worse?) to have clear background in the judges’ preferences.

  5. Nina says:

    Biases! This “casuistry” idea sounds a bit like Kennedy and Pronin to me. Specifically, where Ditto and Knowles seem to focus on the role of “principles” that are “emotionally satisfying” in decision-making, Kennedy and Pronin highlighted the self-interest bias. This bias, briefly, was that people think others’ public policy opinions are biased by self-interest, while their own are not. Both the Ditto/Knowles and Kennedy/Pronin formulations seem to be self-justifying biases that affect our decision-making processes.

    Brian’s final thoughts about the distinction between principles and preferences are especially enlightening in this context, I think. How do we treat/think about others whose decisions are guided by principles (“I like equality”) versus preferences (“I like smoking”)? How do we judge/define principles?

    Very clear post and nicely written, Brian.

  6. Amit says:

    Nice post. I’d be interested to hear what you thought about the comment I posted on Jeff’s blog re: the power of emotions relative to cognition.

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