Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Saturday, August 21, 2021

The relational logic of moral inference

Crockett, M., Everett, J. A. C., Gill, M., & Siegel, J. 
(2021, July 9). https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/82c6y


How do we make inferences about the moral character of others? Here we review recent work on the cognitive mechanisms of moral inference and impression updating. We show that moral inference follows basic principles of Bayesian inference, but also departs from the standard Bayesian model in ways that may facilitate the maintenance of social relationships. Moral inference is not only sensitive to whether people make moral decisions, but also to features of decisions that reveal their suitability as a relational partner. Together these findings suggest that moral inference follows a relational logic: people form and update moral impressions in ways that are responsive to the demands of ongoing social relationships and particular social roles. We discuss implications of these findings for theories of moral cognition and identify new directions for research on human morality and person perception.


There is growing evidence that people infer moral character from behaviors that are not explicitly moral. The data so far suggest that people who are patient, hard-working, tolerant of ambiguity, risk-averse, and actively open-minded are seen as more moral and trustworthy. While at first blush this collection of preferences may seem arbitrary, considering moral inference from a relational perspective reveals a coherent logic. All of these preferences are correlated with cooperative behavior, and comprise traits that are desirable for long-term relationship partners. Reaping the benefits of long-term relationships requires patience and a tolerance for ambiguity: sometime people make mistakes despite good intentions. Erring on the side of caution and actively seeking evidence to inform decision-making in social situations not only helps prevent harmful outcomes (Kappes et al., 2019), but also signals respect: social life is fraught with uncertainty (FeldmanHall & Shenhav, 2019; Kappes et al., 2019), and assuming we know what’s best for another person can have bad consequences, even when our intentions are good.  If evidence continues to suggest that certain types of non-moral preferences are preferred in social partners, partner choice mechanisms may explain the prevalence of those preferences in the broader population.