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Friday, January 7, 2022

Moral Appraisals Guide Intuitive Legal Determinations

B. Flanagan, G.F.C.F. de Almeida, et al.


Socialization demands the capacity to observe a plethora of private, legal, and institutional rules.  To accomplish this,  individuals must grasp rules’ meaning and infer the class of conduct each proscribes.  Yet this basic account neglects important nuance in the way we reason about complex cases in which a rule’s literal or textualist interpretation conflicts with deeper values.  In six studies (total N = 2541), we examined legal determinations through the lens of these cases.  We found that moral appraisals—of the  rule’s value (Study  1) and the agent’s character (Studies 2-3)—shaped people’s application of rules, driving counter-literal legal determinations. These effects were stronger under time pressure and were weakened by the opportunity to reflect (Study  4). Our final studies explored the role of theory of mind: Textualist judgments arose when agents were described as cognizant of the rule’s text yet ignorant of its deeper purpose (Study 5). Meanwhile, the intuitive tendency toward counter-literal determinations was strongest when the rule’s purpose could be inferred from its text—pointing  toward an influence  of  spontaneous mental state ascriptions (Studies  6a-6b). Together, our results elucidate the cognitive basis  of  legal reasoning: Intuitive legal determinations build on core competencies in moral cognition, including mental state and character inferences.  In turn, cognitive control dampens these effects, promoting a broadly textualist response pattern.

General Discussion 

Our present studies suggest that moral appraisals shape people’s determinations of whether various rules  have  been  violated.  Counter-literal  judgments emerge when agents violate a rule’s morally laudable purpose, but not when they violate a rule’s evil purpose (Study 1). An impact of moral appraisals  is observed even  when manipulating the transgressor’s broader moral character—such that blameworthy  agents are deemed to violate rules to a greater extent than praiseworthy agents, even when both behaviors fall within the literal scope of the rule (Study 2).  These effects persist when applying two further  robustness checks: (i) when encouraging participants to concurrently and independently  evaluate the  morality as well as the legality of the  target behaviors,  and  (ii)  when  explicitly  denying  any  constitutional constraints on the moral propriety of legal or private rules (Study 3). Turning our attention to the  underlying cognitive mechanisms,  we found that applying time pressure promoted counter-literal judgments (Study 4), suggesting that such decisions are  driven by automatic cognitive  processes.  We  then examined how representations of the agent’s knowledge impacted rule application: Stipulating the agent’s ignorance of the rule’s underlying purpose helped to explain the default tendency toward textualist determinations (Study 5). Finally, we uncovered an effect of spontaneous mental state inferences on  judgments of whether rules had been violated: Participants appeared to automatically represent the likelihood of inferring the rule’s true purpose from its text, and the inferability of a rule’s purpose yielded  greater counter-literal tendencies (Studies 6a-6b)—regardless of the agent’s actual knowledge status. 

In essence, an individual's moral judgments affect their interpretation of laws, and biases the decision-making process.