While many moral norms are arguably universal1, I will focus here on a kind of moral meta-norm, namely, the importance of an actor’s intentions for people who make moral evaluations of their actions. Some of the best evidence for the universal importance of intentions comes from developmental psychology, showing how moral reasoning works before children have received much cultural learning about social rules. Experiments using animated characters have shown that even completely pre-verbal infants implicitly prefer characters who try to help another character, but fail, to those who try to hinder another character but accidentally help them2.
A further development takes place when children aged 6 or 7 stop explicitly condemning characters that accidentally harm another character, despite having intentions to help them. This phenomenon is generally known as the outcome-to-intention shift3, implying that children move from a focus on morally evaluating the outcomes of actions to evaluating the intentions behind the actions. This is, in fact, a misnomer, as only bad outcomes with good intentions are affected by the transition. Good intentions with good outcomes are always judged favorably, while bad intentions with bad outcomes are always judged negatively. The only other interesting combination is that of bad intentions with good outcomes. Previous work showed that children as young as four nearly always judge such cases unfavorably4. My Ph.D. student, Camilo Moreno, and I recently replicated that result with a cultural group (relatively low-income Colombian children) whose moral reasoning had never before been studied like this. We also demonstrated that it held true even for children as young as three who did not pass a standard false-belief task – that is, they seemed incapable of representing beliefs of another person that differed from their own5.
“…it makes evolutionary sense that people would be hyper-vigilant about harmful intent, reading people’s morally relevant actions for clues of possible intentions to harm the values and structures that their own group holds dear.”
If we assume that these young children are condemning someone for an intention to break a rule, it seems strange that while unable to understand that someone can have a wrong belief, they are yet able to understand that someone can have a wrong intention (that is, an intention to break a rule that they themselves would follow). A more natural interpretation is perhaps that across the various scenarios that we used, the characters are being judged for an intention to harm. We already know that three-year-old children are capable of understanding the concept of harm because even three-year-old children easily distinguish between two types of normative rules: conventional rules, which are authority dependent, vary from place to place, and tend to have less serious consequences if violated; and moral rules, which are independent of whether an authority figure says they should be obeyed, apply everywhere, and whose violations have serious consequences6. Only the second type of rule is associated with the idea of harm: when asked why moral rules should be followed, children spontaneously bring up the idea of harmful repercussions to not following them but tend not to mention harm in connection with conventional rules.
In contrast, authors such as Jonathan Haidt7 have argued from a “moral pluralist” point of view that concerns about harm (and its positive counterpart, care) represent just one of at least five foundational systems in human moral psychology. Much of the evidence for this comes from experiments in which working conservative, working-class, or non-Western participants would condemn much more harshly than their liberal, middle-class, or Western counterparts such transgressions as having sex with an already-dead chicken, cleaning a lavatory with the national flag, or incest between consenting adults, even though it was made clear that these transgressions would not be witnessed by anyone other than the perpetrators, and thus no material harm would result.
Reflecting on these experiments in the light of the importance of intentional understanding in moral development, it occurs to me that although no material harm resulted in the vignettes, the characters in them may have been judged for their apparent intentions to harm: not to do material harm, but to do symbolic harm to a group, authority or belief system. From the perspective of cultural group selection8, it makes evolutionary sense that people would be hyper-vigilant about harmful intent, reading people’s morally relevant actions for clues of possible intentions to harm the values and structures that their own group holds dear. The importance of all this is that it instructs us to remember that our ideological opponents may feel threatened by our ideas, just as we can feel threatened by theirs.
- Brown, D. E. (1991). Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Hamlin, J. K. (2013). Failed attempts to help and harm: Intention versus outcome in preverbal infants’ social evaluations. Cognition, 128, 451–474.
- Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Paul, Trench, & Trubner.
- Cushman, F., Sheketoff, R., Wharton, S., & Carey, S. (2013). The development of intent-based moral judgement. Cognition, 127, 6–21.
- Moreno, C. O., & Ingram, G. P. D. (2018). Manuscript in preparation.
- Turiel, E. (1983). The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814–834.
- Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.