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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The curious tale of Julie and Mark: Unraveling the moral dumbfounding effect

Edward B. Royzman, Kwanwoo Kim, Robert F. Leeman
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 4, July 2015, pp. 296–313


The paper critically reexamines the well-known “Julie and Mark” vignette, a stylized account of two college-age siblings opting to engage in protected sex while vacationing abroad (e.g., Haidt, 2001). Since its inception, the story has been viewed as a rhetorically powerful validation of Hume’s “sentimentalist” dictum that moral judgments are not rationally deduced but arise directly from feelings of pleasure or displeasure (e.g., disgust). People’s typical reactions to the vignette are alleged to support this view by demonstrating that individuals are prone to become morally dumbfounded (Haidt, 2001; Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2000), i.e., they tend to “stubbornly” maintain their disapproval of the act without supporting reasons. In what follows, we critically reassess the traditional account, predicated on the notion that, among other things, most subjects simply fail to be convinced that the siblings’ actions are truly harm-free, thus having excellent reasons to disapprove of these acts. In line with this critique, 3 studies found that subjects 1) tended not to believe that the siblings’ actions were in fact harmless; 2) notwithstanding that, and in spite of holding a number of “counterargument-immune” reasons, subjects could be effectively maneuvered into exhibiting all the trademark signs of a morally dumbfounded state (which they subsequently recanted), and 3) with subjects’ beliefs about harm and standards of normative evaluation properly factored in, a more rigorous assessment procedure yielded a dumbfounding estimate of about 0. Based on these and related results, we contend that subjects’ reactions are wholly in line with the rationalist model of moral judgment and that their use in support of claims of moral arationalism should be reevaluated.

The entire article is here.

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