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Our tendency to make moral judgments based on symbolic rather than actual harm

Evil pumpkin
Evil pumpkin
Courtesy of flickr user Riv

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. (Haidt, 2001)

In most Western nations today the basis on which laws are created is rights based. One can do whatever she/he wants as long as the behavior does not interfere with the rights of other individuals. There are for example no laws on how much alcohol can be consumed in one’s home but there are laws about being drunk and driving on the road. Rights based laws make a lot of sense to our rational disposition but recent studies in moral psychology have shown that in most situations we don’t make moral judgments rationally. The story of Julie and Mark presented above is a perfect example how people make moral judgments based on their intuitions.

In numerous studies done by cognitive psychologists whenever participants were presented with the story of Julie and Mark and asked “Was it OK for them to make love?” most were quick to express disapproval but had trouble justifying their condemnation of the act of incest. Some suggested that incest might lead to deformed offspring but then retracted such criticism when reminded that two different types of contraception were used. Others argued that their parents and relatives might take an offence but this too, isn’t a good argument since the story explicitly states that the brother and sister decide to keep the act a secret.

Researchers in moral psychology have tried to explain above described phenomenon of moral dumbfounding by arguing that people must be presuming some degree of harm to others even though no harm is present. This presumption of harm gets coupled with moral emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust that drives us to express various types of moral disapproval.

In order to figure out how exactly moral emotions like anger and disgust relate to presumption of harm when making moral judgments about social taboos Gutierrez and Giner-Sorolla (2007), researchers at University of Kent, United Kingdom, carried out a series of experiments of which one is described herein. The experiment involved 194 participants who were told they were going to partake in a study that measured how well people were able to judge actions of others while remembering a number. The real role of remembering numbers was actually to see whether when making moral judgments about social taboos people would not presume harm as much while having a degree of cognitive load (remembering numbers) versus no cognitive load (remembering one digit).

After presenting participants with either a seven digit number (cognitive load) or a one digit number (no load) the participants were given a taboo or a non-taboo moral scenario. The taboo moral scenario involved the story of a scientist that cloned her own muscle tissue and either ate it herself or made her friends eat the meat without their knowledge of what the meat actually was. The non-taboo moral scenario had a scientist creating a memory enhancement drug and either testing it on herself or testing it on her friends without their consent. After reading the scenarios participants were asked to give responses about their moral disapproval, perceived level of harm, and emotions that they felt while reading the scenarios.

The results of the study revealed that in both taboo and non-taboo violations the manipulation of harm to others influenced anger scores significantly but not disgust. On the other hand, the manipulation of taboo violation impacted disgust scores but not anger. Participants who were in the taboo violation condition and were told in the moral scenario that no one was harmed nonetheless inferred harm to others. The presumption of harm correlated with scores on anger but not disgust and this presumption of symbolic harm appeared only in non-cognitive load condition, reinforcing its hypothesized function of justifying moral anger.

Studies like this are usually classified as being part of basic research though the results described above do shed light on why some individuals react so violently in response of disruption of social norms. Homosexuality in United States is considered by some to be an immoral behavior because of its violation of symbolic values and not actual harm to anyone. When taboo violations like incest and cannibalism occur, some kind of real harm to others does take place. And it is not surprising that when a person for example is cultured into thinking that homosexuality belongs in the same social taboo category like incest and cannibalism. she/he is inclined to associate some kind of real harm with homosexuality even when there is none.

As a side note, it is interesting that in modernity even people who are not Christians when making moral judgments have an inclination to regard evil as an entity that is outside of anyone’s control. There is constant reinforcement of the idea that people are either evil or good and when they are evil the best policy is to simply eradicate them. But there are and always have been alternative theories about evil, even among Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). In Rabbinic Judaism for example, evil is not an external force but a part of human condition called “Yetzer hara”. Yetzer hara translates to evil impulse but is it not something demonic or unnatural. Yetzer hara is self interest in one’s own well being. Evil things happen to us because of our impulses but we have power and ability to manage it.

The kind of evil described in Rabbinic Judaism is not about cosmological battle against God but ordinary temptations. Evil is something that needs to be managed everyday: while driving should I cut or not cut someone off, should I curse or not curse if someone cuts me off, should I or should I not tell my loved one to shut up because I am tired. By the time a person is standing in front of a bank with shotgun in hand contemplating whether or not to go in, it’s already too late. This view of evil as an innate drive that is inherently neither good or bad is strikingly similar to modern day psychological theories of how we use automatic emotional impulses to make moral judgments.


Gutierrez, R., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2007). Anger, disgust, and presumption of harm as reactions to taboo-breaking behaviors. Emotion, 7, 853-868.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.