Moral dynamics: Grounding moral judgment in intuitive physics and intuitive psychology


When holding others morally responsible, we care about what they did and what they thought. Traditionally, research in moral psychology has relied on vignette studies, in which the protagonist’s actions and thoughts are explicitly communicated. Recent studies have begun to employ visual stimuli, and some have postulated a direct link from processing visual features to making moral judgments. We embrace the advent of visual stimuli in moral psychology, but believe that the connection between visual processing and moral judgments is mediated by an inference about what the observed action reveals about the agent’s mental states. We formalize moral judgments as computations over an intuitive theory of physics combined with an intuitive theory of mind. Knowing that mental states lead to action (e.g., the belief that someone is in harm’s way and the desire to help them stimulates a decision to shove them out of harm’s way), and that these actions are constrained by physics (the shove has to be forceful enough, aimed in the right direction, timed appropriately, etc.), allows an observer to make powerful inferences about moral responsibility. Two experiments show that this model captures moral judgments about physical scenes, both qualitatively and quantitatively.


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