Folk Moral Objectivism: The Case of Harmful Actions

Paulo Sousa*, Aurélien Allard, Jared Piazza, Geoffrey P. Goodwin

*Corresponding author for this work

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Abstract

It is controversial whether ordinary people regard beliefs about the wrongness of harmful actions as objectively correct. Our deflationary hypothesis, consistent with much of the evidence, is that people are objectivists about harmful actions that are perceived to involve injustice: when two parties disagree about whether such an action is wrong, people think that only one party is correct (the party believing that the action is wrong). However, Sarkissian and colleagues claimed that this evidence is misleading, showing that when the two disagreeing parties are from radically different cultures or species, people tend to think that both parties are correct (a non-objectivist position). We argue that Sarkissian et al.'s studies have some methodological limitations. In particular, participants may have assumed that the exotic or alien party misunderstood the harmful action, and this assumption, rather than a genuinely non-objectivist stance, may have contributed to the increase in non-objectivist responses. Study 1 replicated Sarkissian et al.'s results with additional follow-up measures probing participants' assumptions about how the exotic or alien party understood the harmful action, which supported our suspicion that their results are inconclusive and therefore do not constitute reliable evidence against the deflationary hypothesis. Studies 2 and 3 modified Sarkissian et al.'s design to provide a clear-cut and reliable test of the deflationary hypothesis. In Study 2, we addressed potential issues with their design, including those concerning participants' assumptions about how the exotic or alien party understood the harmful action. In Study 3, we manipulated the alien party's capacity to understand the harmful action. With these changes to the design, high rates of objectivism emerged, consistent with the deflationary hypothesis. Studies 4a and 4b targeted the deflationary hypothesis more precisely by manipulating perceptions of injustice to see the effect on objectivist responding and by probing the more specific notion of objectivism entailed by our hypothesis. The results fully supported the deflationary hypothesis.
Original languageEnglish
Article number638515
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Volume12
Early online date28 Jul 2021
DOIs
Publication statusEarly online date - 28 Jul 2021

Keywords

  • Psychology
  • folk meta-ethics
  • moral beliefs
  • objectivism
  • universalism
  • harm
  • injustice

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