Bad is Bad, But How Bad Depends

moral intent

Our study found no support for the strong version of the Moral Intent Hypothesis.

Striking another person with intent to harm is wrong, we’d almost all certainly agree. But, if it was done in self-defense, we might reconsider that judgment. We might think that it was necessary and, thus, not quite as bad as a blindsided sucker punch thrown for no apparent reason. But, we might also consider that person a hero for standing up to a bully.

In the US, where I grew up, it’s pretty standard to take into account mitigating factors and intent when judging whether something’s wrong . In fact, its codified into law throughout the US and is thus considered by judges and juries when sentencing those who have perpetrated such behavior.

The role of mitigating factors and intent in shaping moral judgments has been called a universal feature of human moral psychology. Meaning that our brain just works this way and thus we should see similar moral reasoning in all people, in all societies from the simplest to the most complex. (1)

The problem is that most research on the subject has been carried out in WEIRD societies, a clever acronym conceived by anthropologist Joe Henrich (a collaborator and co-author on the paper) and colleagues for societies that are Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic.

The “Culture and the Mind” (2) group set out to fill this gap by testing the idea in a more representative sample, including 8 non-WEIRD (“small-scale”) and 2 WEIRD (“industrialized”) societies. The results of this research were published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. (3)

moral intent data collection

My role on the project was to help design the research, and to lead the team running the vignette experiments among the Karo Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia.

We presented subjects with vignettes that were worded so that wrongdoings were paired with various mitigating factors (self defense or insanity, for instance) or intentions (with intent to cause harm or accidental, for instance). The experimental design allowed us to quantify the effects of the mitigating factors and intentions on judgments in each culture.

What we found was that, although all of the societies in our sample took these factors into account, the degree to which the factors altered judgments varied across the societies.

The results support the Moral Intent Hypothesis, that consideration of mitigating factors and intent is a universal feature of human moral psychology, but not the strong version that would have all societies treating the various factors in a uniform way.

More likely, the degree to which these factors affect our moral judgments is the result of the cultural evolution of moral norms overlying a universal moral psychology.

In other words, the moral animal appears to be a truly biocultural one, as our moral reasoning is shaped by the nuanced interaction of our shared evolutionary history as humans and our unique histories as members of specific societies.

We might all agree that a punch for no reason is worse than a punch in self defense, but whether it mitigates our judgment in a slight (“it’s not as bad”) or extreme (“she’s a hero”) depends very much on our upbringing.


(1) The reason for these universal features, it is argued, is that they evolved deep in our evolutionary past to solve recurrent problems that faced our ancestors. They are present in all societies either because their evolutionary origin predated the geographic spread of humans or they evolved later but the evolutionary pressures were the same for every population. I’ve written previously about universality:

  • Kushnick, G. (2013) Why do the Karo Batak prefer women with big feet? Flexible mate preferences and the notion that one size fits all. Hum Nat, 24, 268-79. PDF

(2) Project website for the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s “Culture and the Mind” Project. LINK

(3) The results of our study, published as an open access article, meaning that anyone can read or download it:

  • Barrett HC, Bolyanatz A, Crittenden AN, Fessler DMT, Fitzpatrick S, Gurven M, Henrich J, Kanovsky M, Kushnick G, Pisor A, Scelza B, Stich S, von Rueden C, Zhao W, Laurence S (2016) Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA. OPEN ACCESS

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One response to “Bad is Bad, But How Bad Depends

  1. Pingback: Debating moral judgment: Some commentary on our recent paper | Dr Geoff Kushnick

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