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Saturday, April 8, 2023

Moral Appraisals Guide Intuitive Legal Determinations

Flanagan, B., de Almeida, G. F. C. F., et al (2021). 
SSRN Electronic Journal.



We sought to understand how basic competencies in moral reasoning influence the interpretation and application of private, legal, and institutional rules. 


We predicted that moral appraisals, implicating both outcome-based and mental state reasoning, would shape participants’ application of various rules and statutes—and asked whether these effects arise differentially under intuitive versus reflective reasoning conditions. 


In six vignette-based experiments (total N = 2502), participants considered a wide range of written rules and laws and were asked to decide whether a protagonist had violated the statute in question. We manipulated morally relevant aspects of each incident—including the valence of the statute’s purpose (Experiment 1) and of the outcomes that ensued (Experiments 2 and 3), as well as the protagonist’s accompanying mental state (Experiment 5). In two studies, we simultaneously varied whether participants decided under time pressure or following a forced delay (Experiments 4 and 6). 


Integrative moral appraisals of the rule’s purpose, the agent’s extraneous blameworthiness and their epistemic state impacted legal determinations, and helped to explain participants’ departure from rules’ literal interpretation. These counter- literal verdicts were stronger under time pressure and were weakened by the opportunity to reflect. 


Under intuitive reasoning conditions, legal determinations draw heavily on core competencies in moral cognition, such as outcome-based and mental state reasoning. In turn, cognitive reflection dampens these effects on statutory interpretation, giving rise to a broadly textualist response pattern.

Public Significance Statement

When deciding whether someone has violated a written rule or law, lay judges initially consult their moral instincts about the incident. In other words, the capacity for legal reasoning draws on our basic moral sense—a finding that resonates with theories of natural law. With enough time to reflect, they then draw closer to the letter of the law. This finding could help to explain a recurring observation: for ‘frontline’ decisions made under time constraints (e.g., while policing) to be contested in court after a more careful exercise in statutory interpretation.