Apologies often go hand in hand with a claim of intent: “But I didn’t mean it that way!” Even our legal systems recognize this idea. We distinguish between the accidental killing of a person (manslaughter) and intentional, planned murder (premeditated murder). A person’s intent clearly matters in how we judge their transgressions. And if someone wants to do something wrong, it will be judged more severely if it is not just an accident, even if the outcome is identical.
Some researchers who study human morality systems think that the importance of moral intent may even be universal in all human societies. We have masses of evidence showing that people take intent seriously when they weigh up moral transgressions: psychological experiments, brain imaging, and even justice system research. But most of this evidence comes from what researchers call WEIRD societies: Western, educated, industrial, wealthy, and democratic.
It’s not really possible to make claims about traits that are universal to all people unless we study a representative sample of people. Perhaps something about living in large industrial societies, with their education systems and distribution of resources, leads us WEIRDos to think about moral intent in a certain way. And because these societies interact a lot with each other, ideas can easily spread between them.
To test the claims of universality, a team of researchers set out to find out how a wide range of societies perceive the importance of moral intent. They found that it played a role for everyone they studied, but there was still a lot of variation between societies.
But he meant well
The researchers studied 10 different societies on six continents. Some of them were hunter-gatherers, others were farmers, and still others had a combination of characteristics, such as hunting and small-scale farming, or fishing and farming. Two of the associations were Western: one from WEIRD Los Angeles and the other from traditional rural Storozhnitsa, Ukraine.
In every society, people were asked to respond to little stories (vignettes) that portrayed abuses. The stories fell into different categories of prohibited acts: some dealt with physical violence, some with group harm (such as poisoning a village), some with theft, and others with beliefs of “purity” centered on food taboos (e.g., not eating cats ).
Each action described could be depicted as intentional (such as stealing someone’s bag) or accidental (such as confusing someone else’s bag with your own). It can also be depicted as something the person had an incentive to do (such as seeing something valuable in the bag) or something the person would like to avoid (such as the bag of someone they wanted to impress).
Each study participant was given four of the vignettes and asked to make a series of judgments about the people in the stories. On a scale of one to five, they had to rate how bad the act was and whether the person in the story should be punished (heavily or lightly) or rewarded for their actions. They were also asked if the person in the story would have a good or bad reputation in light of their actions.
The researchers found that “high intent” actions (actions that a character in a story did intentionally, or had an incentive to do) were judged worse, deserved more severe punishment, and caused a worse reputation.
But there were big differences between societies. People in Los Angeles rated high-intent actions much more harshly than low-intent actions; people in Storozhnitsa even more so. At the other end of the scale, Yasawa fishing communities in Fiji showed a much smaller difference between high and low intent actions, as did Himba herdsmen of Namibia.
There were also differences in how much intent made a difference for different types of offenses. If story characters weren’t meant to break a food taboo, people wouldn’t care so much; breaking the food taboo was pretty much always bad, whether they meant it or not. On the other hand, intent played a major role in theft verdicts. If a story character accidentally stole property, it made a big difference in how harshly they were judged.
Finally, societies varied widely in what they considered a reasonable excuse for a character’s actions. In the vignettes, characters sometimes did something wrong out of necessity, self-defense, insanity or because of a mistake or different moral beliefs. Most societies had a limited tolerance for someone of a different moral belief and a high tolerance for actions committed in self-defense, but other excuses showed more variation. For example, the Storozhnitsa were very lenient when given a madness defense, but the Yasawa didn’t think it really helped to excuse an action.
Universal but different
The results paint a complicated picture for the issue of universality. All societies seemed to use a character’s intentions in some way when judging how bad their actions were. However, some societies considered intent to be incredibly important, while others only slightly honed their judgment in response to a change in intent.
If we consider universal behavior as something that appears in an identical manner in every society, the results of this experiment suggest that beliefs about intention are not universal. However, there is a more flexible way of thinking about universality. “Intentions and other reasons for action play a role in moral psychology in all societies, although that role may vary by society and by context,” the researchers write. This version of universality is strongly supported by the data.
Jared Piazza, who studies the psychology of morality, points out that people in different societies may have different interpretations of the stories. The participants were asked some questions to check their interpretations of the stories, and this showed that societies also had differences in how much they believed the characters were acting intentionally. So it may be that some people didn’t think a character’s actions were unintentional, and didn’t think that intentional and unintentional actions are equally bad. “It is possible that the variation is largely explained by differences in how members of different groups interpreted the stimuli,” he told Ars.
The study is still an essential step in testing claims about universal moral standards. “Cross-cultural work, particularly in small-scale, non-WEIRD societies” is essential to studying human universals, the authors write. It will help us figure out how weird western societies are, and understand how much we can extrapolate from just a small fraction of human experience.
PNAS2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1522070113 (About DOIs).