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How do people make moral judgments?

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People make quick moral judgments regularly in day-to-day life, for example while driving, engaging in conversation or when facing a particular situation. Mounting evidence suggests that these intuitive judgments occur quickly without the engagement of any deliberate cognitive systems. But evaluating moral judgments is tricky because some moral judgments are considered intuitive while others are considered counterintuitive. For example, most people will consider lying to be morally wrong, but if faced with a situation where lying will protect someone from considerable harm, then lying is morally acceptable. The flexibility of moral judgements makes it difficult to reach a clear consensus that explains the basis of moral judgements.

When the scenarios had lower stakes, the nature of the deed was the strongest factor in determining if an action was deemed moral or immoral.

To understand what mechanisms are triggering moral judgments, researchers from North Carolina State University conducted two experiments. They developed a series of scenarios that were logical, realistic and easily understood by both laypersons and professional philosophers. The scenarios were evaluated by 141 professional philosophers with training in ethics. In the first experiment, 528 participants evaluated different scenarios. The scenarios used in this study had low dire outcomes. In the second study, 786 participants evaluated more drastic scenarios — including scenarios that could result in severe injury or death.

The researchers found that when the scenarios had lower stakes, the nature of the deed was the strongest factor in determining if an action was deemed moral or immoral. Whether the person was lying or telling the truth mattered the most, rather than whether the outcome was bad or good. But when the scenarios were drastic, the nature of the consequences was the strongest factor. In the case of a good outcome (survival of passengers in an aeroplane), the difference between a good or a bad deed, although relevant for the moral evaluation, was less important. The study also showed that philosophers and the general public made moral judgments in similar ways, indicating that the structure of moral intuition is the same regardless of whether one has training in ethics or not.

Source: PLOS ONE


Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!