Beliefs About the True Self Explain Asymmetries Based on Moral Judgment

Cognitive Science 39 (1):96-125 (2015)
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Abstract

Past research has identified a number of asymmetries based on moral judgments. Beliefs about what a person values, whether a person is happy, whether a person has shown weakness of will, and whether a person deserves praise or blame seem to depend critically on whether participants themselves find the agent's behavior to be morally good or bad. To date, however, the origins of these asymmetries remain unknown. The present studies examine whether beliefs about an agent's “true self” explain these observed asymmetries based on moral judgment. Using the identical materials from previous studies in this area, a series of five experiments indicate that people show a general tendency to conclude that deep inside every individual there is a “true self” calling him or her to behave in ways that are morally virtuous. In turn, this belief causes people to hold different intuitions about what the agent values, whether the agent is happy, whether he or she has shown weakness of will, and whether he or she deserves praise or blame. These results not only help to answer important questions about how people attribute various mental states to others; they also contribute to important theoretical debates regarding how moral values may shape our beliefs about phenomena that, on the surface, appear to be decidedly non-moral in nature.

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Joshua Knobe
Yale University

References found in this work

The moral problem.Michael Smith - 1994 - Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell.
Freedom of the will and the concept of a person.Harry G. Frankfurt - 1971 - Journal of Philosophy 68 (1):5-20.
Being and nothingness.Jean-Paul Sartre - 1956 - Avenel, N.J.: Random House.
Free agency.Gary Watson - 1975 - Journal of Philosophy 72 (April):205-20.

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