Aspects of the Theory of Moral Cognition: Investigating Intuitive Knowledge of the Prohibition of Intentional Battery and the Principle of Double Effect

SSRN Electronic Journal 05/2002; DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.762385


Where do our moral intuitions come from? Are they innate? Does the brain contain a module specialized for moral judgment? Does the human genetic program contain instructions for the acquisition of a sense of justice or moral sense? Questions like these have been asked in one form or another for centuries. In this paper we take them up again, with the aim of clarifying them and developing a specific proposal for how they can be empirically investigated. The paper presents data from six trolley problem studies of over five hundred individuals, including one group of Chinese adults and one group of American children, which suggest that both adults and children ages 8-12 rely on intuitive knowledge of moral principles, including the prohibition of intentional battery and the principle of double effect, to determine the permissibility of actions that require harming one individual in order to prevent harm to others. Significantly, the knowledge in question appears to be merely tacit: when asked to explain or justify their judgments, subjects were consistently incapable of articulating the operative principles on which their judgments appear to have been based. We explain these findings with reference to an analogy to human linguistic competence. Just as normal persons are typically unaware of the principles guiding their linguistic intuitions, so too are they often unaware of the principles guiding their moral intuitions. These studies pave the way for future research by raising the possibility that specific poverty of the stimulus arguments can be formulated in the moral domain. Differences between our approach to moral cognition and those of Piaget (1932), Kohlberg (1981), and Greene et al. (2001) are also discussed.

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    • "The results of these and other scenarios suggest that judgments about the moral permissibility of a harm-producing action align with three basic moral principles: (1) Harm caused by action is worse than harm caused by inaction (the omission bias) (Baron & Ritov, 2004; Spranca et al., 1991/2005). (2) Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than foreseen harm produced as a side effect of the actions taken to achieve a goal (the intention principle or the principle of double effect) (Mikhail, 2002; Royzman & Baron, 2002). (3) Harm involving physical contact with the victim is worse than similar harm produced in the absence of physical contact (the physical contact principle). "
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    ABSTRACT: Two experiments examined biases in children’s (5/6- and 7/8-year-olds) and adults’ moral judgments. Participants at all ages judged that it was worse to produce harm when harm occurred (a) through action rather than inaction (omission bias), (b) when physical contact with the victim was involved (physical contact principle), and (c) when the harm was produced as a direct means to an end rather than as an unintended but foreseeable side effect of the action (intention principle). The youngest participants, however, did not incorporate benefit when making judgments about situations in which harm to one individual resulted in benefit to five individuals. Older participants showed some preference for benefit resulting from action (commission) as opposed to inaction (omission). The findings are discussed in the context of the theory that moral judgments result, in part, from the operation of an inherent, intuitive moral faculty compared with the theory that moral judgments require development of necessary cognitive abilities.
    Full-text · Article · Sep 2012 · Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
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    • "Mikhail argues that the temporal hypothesis has already been ruled out by the comparison between Ned and Oscar (Mikhail, 2002, Experiment 4). "
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    ABSTRACT: The traditional philosophical doctrine of double effect claims that agents' intentions affect whether acts are morally wrong. Our behavioral study reveals that agents' intentions affect whether acts are judged morally wrong but not whether acts are classified as killings, whereas the temporal order of good and bad effects affects whether acts are classified as killings but not whether acts are judged morally wrong. These findings suggest that the moral judgments are not based on the classifications. Our results also undermine recent claims that prior moral judgments determine whether agents are seen as causing effects intentionally rather than as side effects. (Word count for article: 7492) * Address for correspondence: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Philosophy
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2008 · Mind & Language
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    • "Such a multisystem model stands in contrast to Kohlberg's (1969) perspective, in which all moral reasoning is assumed to be the product of conscious reasoning. It also stands in contrast to the recent intuitionist proposal by Mikhail (Mikhail et al., 2002) to incorporate the sorts of moral principles discussed here into a single evaluative mechanism that accomplishes moral judgment in a manner loosely analogous to the way in which syntactic structure is analyzed in language. "
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    ABSTRACT: Is moral judgment accomplished by intuition or conscious reasoning? An answer demands a detailed account of the moral principles in question. We investigated three principles that guide moral judgments: (a) Harm caused by action is worse than harm caused by omission, (b) harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm foreseen as the side effect of a goal, and (c) harm involving physical contact with the victim is worse than harm involving no physical contact. Asking whether these principles are invoked to explain moral judgments, we found that subjects generally appealed to the first and third principles in their justifications, but not to the second. This finding has significance for methods and theories of moral psychology: The moral principles used in judgment must be directly compared with those articulated in justification, and doing so shows that some moral principles are available to conscious reasoning whereas others are not.
    Full-text · Article · Jan 2007 · Psychological Science
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