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Cognition. 2011 Aug;120(2):202-14. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.04.005. Epub 2011 May 23.

When ignorance is no excuse: Different roles for intent across moral domains.

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Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, USA.


A key factor in legal and moral judgments is intent. Intent differentiates, for instance, murder from manslaughter. Is this true for all moral judgments? People deliver moral judgments of many kinds of actions, including harmful actions (e.g., assault) and purity violations (e.g., incest, consuming taboo substances). We show that intent is a key factor for moral judgments of harm, but less of a factor for purity violations. Based on the agent's innocent intent, participants judged accidental harms less morally wrong than accidental incest; based on the agent's guilty intent, participants judged failed attempts to harm more morally wrong than failed attempts to commit incest. These patterns were specific to moral judgments versus judgments of the agent's control, knowledge, or intent, the action's overall emotional salience, or participants' ratings of disgust. The current results therefore reveal distinct cognitive signatures of distinct moral domains, and may inform the distinct functional roles of moral norms.

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