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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Influence of War on Moral Judgments about Harm

Hanne M Watkins and Simon M Laham


How does war influence moral judgments about harm? While the general rule is “thou shalt not kill,” war appears to provide an unfortunately common exception to the moral prohibition on intentional harm. In three studies (N = 263, N = 557, N = 793), we quantify the difference in moral judgments across peace and war contexts, and explore two possible explanations for the difference. Taken together, the findings of the present studies have implications for moral psychology researchers who use war based scenarios to study broader cognitive or affective processes. If the war context changes judgments of moral scenarios by triggering group-based reasoning or altering the perceived structure of the moral event, using such scenarios to make “decontextualized” claims about moral judgment may not be warranted.

Here is part of the discussion.

A number of researchers have begun to investigate how social contexts may influence moral judgment, whether those social contexts are grounded in groups (Carnes et al, 2015; Ellemers & van den Bos, 2009) or relationships (Fiske & Rai, 2014; Simpson, Laham, & Fiske, 2015). The war context is another specific context which influences moral judgments: in the present study we found that the intergroup nature of war influenced people’s moral judgments about harm in war – even if they belonged to neither of the two groups actually at war – and that the usually robust difference between switch and footbridge scenarios was attenuated in the war context. One implication of these findings is that some caution may be warranted when using war-based scenarios for studying morality in general. As mentioned in the introduction, scenarios set in war are often used in the study of broad domains or general processes of judgment (e.g. Graham et al., 2009; Phillips & Young, 2011; Piazza et al., 2013). Given the interaction of war context with intergroup considerations and with the construed structure of the moral event in the present studies, researchers are well advised to avoid making generalizations to morality writ large on the basis of war-related scenarios (see also Bauman, McGraw, Bartels, & Warren, 2014; Bloom, 2011).

The preprint is here.