An actor's mental states—whether she acted knowingly and with bad intentions—typically play an important role in evaluating the extent to which an action is wrong and in determining appropriate levels of punishment. In four experiments, we find that this role for knowledge and intent is significantly weaker when evaluating transgressions of conventional rules as opposed to moral rules. We also find that this attenuated role for knowledge and intent is partly due to the fact that conventional rules are judged to be more arbitrary than moral rules; whereas moral transgressions are associated with actions that are intrinsically wrong (e.g., hitting another person), conventional transgressions are associated with actions that are only contingently wrong (e.g., wearing pajamas to school, which is only wrong if it violates a dress code that could have been otherwise). Finally, we find that it is the perpetrator's belief about the arbitrary or non-arbitrary basis of the rule—not the reality—that drives this differential effect of knowledge and intent across types of transgressions.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Artificial Intelligence
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Decision making
- Mental states
- Moral evaluation