By Kurt Gray, Chelsea Schein, and Adrian Ward
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
2014, Vol. 143, No. 4, 1600–1615
When something is wrong, someone is harmed. This hypothesis derives from the theory of dyadic
morality, which suggests a moral cognitive template of wrongdoing agent and suffering patient (i.e.,
victim). This dyadic template means that victimless wrongs (e.g., masturbation) are psychologically
incomplete, compelling the mind to perceive victims even when they are objectively absent. Five studies reveal that dyadic completion occurs automatically and implicitly: Ostensibly harmless wrongs are perceived to have victims (Study 1), activate concepts of harm (Studies 2 and 3), and increase perceptions of suffering (Studies 4 and 5). These results suggest that perceiving harm in immorality is intuitive and does not require effortful rationalization. This interpretation argues against both standard interpretations of moral dumbfounding and domain-specific theories of morality that assume the psychological existence of harmless wrongs. Dyadic completion also suggests that moral dilemmas in which wrongness (deontology) and harm (utilitarianism) conflict are unrepresentative of typical moral cognition.
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