Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Moral Kinematics: The Role of Physical Factors in Moral Judgments

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Moral Kinematics: The Role of Physical Factors in Moral Judgments

Article excerpt

Published online: 23 May 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Harmful events often have a strong physical component-for instance, car accidents, plane crashes, fist fights, and military interventions. Yet there has been very little systematic work on the degree to which physical factors influence our moral judgments about harm. Since physical factors are related to our perception of causality, they should also influence our subsequent moral judgments. In three experiments, we tested this prediction, focusing in particular on the roles of motion and contact. In Experiment 1, we used abstract video stimuli and found that intervening on a harmful object was judged as being less bad than intervening directly on the victim, and that setting an object in motion was judged as being worse than redirecting an already moving object. Experiment 2 showed that participants were sensitive not only to the presence or absence of motion and contact, but also to the magnitudes and frequencies associated with these dimensions. Experiment 3 extended the findings from Experiment 1 to verbally presented moral dilemmas. These results suggest that domain-general processes play a larger role in moral cognition than is currently assumed.

Keywords Moral judgments . Causality . Motion . Agency . Physical factors

In this study, we asked a simple empirical question: Do people take physical factors into account when making moral judgments? At first glance, our ability to distinguish good from bad seems more or less independent from the way that we perceive the physical aspects of our surroundings. Moral principles such as "do no harm" are abstract and largely decontextualized, and many would argue that they have transcendental or sacred aspects embedded in themthat go beyond the physical plane. Yet our cognitive system is attuned to the physical aspects of reality (Heider, 1958; Michotte, 1946; Saxe & Carey, 2006; White, 2006, 2009; Wolff, 2008), and we suggest that moral cognition will similarly be sensitive to physical properties. More specifically, we focus on motion and contact, which have been shown to be important factors in judgments of causality and agency, and thus presumably are relevant to attributing moral blame.

The rest of this article is organized as follows: First, we review some relevant findings linking causality to moral judgments; then we briefly describe some of the physical properties that have been associated with causal reasoning; next, we present three empirical studies exploring the roles of motion and contact on moral judgments; and finally, we turn to a discussion on the broader implications of the experimental results.

Causality in moral judgments

Among the different cognitive processes that are relevant to moral judgments, our abilities to perceive meaningful connections between events, to make causal inferences, and to assign causal roles seem particularly important (Baron & Ritov, 2009; Darley & Schultz, 1990; Driver, 2008; Heider, 1958; Lagnado & Channon, 2008; Pizarro, Uhlmann, & Bloom, 2003; Shaver, 1985; Sloman, Fernbach, & Ewing, 2009; Waldmann & Dieterich, 2007). Nevertheless, it is not only the presence or absence of a causal link between actor and outcome that guides our moral judgments. To a large degree, moral judgments hinge on the particular properties of the link. Different actors bringing equivalent harm through different causal paths are often judged differently.

Three causality-based moral factors are particularly important for the present work:

Directness of the harm and locus of intervention Royzman and Baron (2002) made the distinction between direct and indirect harm. Pushing a person who falls as a result is perceived as being worse than pushing a fence on which the person is leaning, causing the person to fall, even though the result is the same. In the first case, the falling of the person is an inherent part of the pushing; in the second, the inherent result concerns the fence, which in turn influences the person (see also Anscombe, 1963, and Davidson, 1980). …

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