Harm, Affect and the Moral/Conventional Distinction: Revisited

In a recent paper, Shaun Nichols (2002) presents a theory that offers an explanation of the cognitive processes underlying moral judgment. His Affect-Backed Norms theory claims that (i) a set of normative rules coupled with (ii) an affective mechanism elicits a certain response pattern (which we will refer to as the “moral norm response pattern”) when subjects respond to transgressions of those norms. That response pattern differs from the way subjects respond to violations of norms that lack the affective backing (here referred to as the “conventional norm response pattern”). In response, Daniel Kelly and colleagues (2007) present data that, the authors claim, undermine Nichols’ Affect-Backed Norms theory by showing that there are novel cases in which (i) and (ii) are in place, yet subjects respond in the way typical of the conventional response pattern. In Section I of this paper we summarize the challenge to the Affect-Backed Norms theory from the novel cases introduced by Kelly et al. We then show how the challenge is potentially flawed because no verification was provided that subjects were experiencing affect when reading the cases, nor was level of affect controlled for. In Section II, we describe the study we conducted to determine what level of affect was induced when subjects read the novel cases. In Section III, we present our findings, namely that subjects respond to the novel cases with different levels of affect, which tracks their judgments of the severity of the transgressions in the cases. In Section IV, we discuss the results and show that the Affect-Backed Norms theory can explain subjects’ responses to the novel cases given this new 2 information about affective response. In Section V, we conclude with a thought about how these findings inform the traditional moral/conventional distinction.
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