George E. Newman, Julian De Freitas, Joshua Knobe
Cognitive Science (2014) 1–30.
Past research has identified a number of asymmetries based on moral judgments. Beliefs about
(a) what a person values, (b) whether a person is happy, (c) whether a person has shown weakness
of will, and (d) whether a person deserves praise or blame seem to depend critically on whether participants themselves find the agent’s behavior to be morally good or bad. To date, however, the origins of these asymmetries remain unknown. The present studies examine whether beliefs about an
agent’s “true self” explain these observed asymmetries based on moral judgment. Using the identical
materials from previous studies in this area, a series of five experiments indicate that people
show a general tendency to conclude that deep inside every individual there is a “true self” calling
him or her to behave in ways that are morally virtuous. In turn, this belief causes people to hold different intuitions about what the agent values, whether the agent is happy, whether he or she has
shown weakness of will, and whether he or she deserves praise or blame. These results not only
help to answer important questions about how people attribute various mental states to others; they
also contribute to important theoretical debates regarding how moral values may shape our beliefs
about phenomena that, on the surface, appear to be decidedly non-moral in nature.
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