Moral Reasoning: two competing processes for intention and outcome identified

In a recent study, by Young, Hauser et al at the Harvard University, the authors tried to experimentally determine whether there is an interaction between intention or belief regarding an action vis-a-vis the actual outcome of the action. For this they used fMRI scans in a 2×2 study involving (negative and neutral) beliefs versus (negative and neutral) outcomes wherein their could be four combination : (competent criminal) intent to harm plus actual harm; (incompetent criminal) intent to harm but no actual harm; (accidental harm) no intent to harm but actual harm and lastly (harmless act) neither intention to harm nor any actual harm. The figure below clarifies this in further detail using an example scenario that was presented to the participants and the participants asked to judge whether the conduct was proper or not and to judge the protagonist’s action on a scale of 1..5 regarding whether it was morally permissible or not.

Before I proceed further I’ll like to quote from the introduction :

In the common law tradition, criminal conviction depends on both a harmful consequence (actus reus) and the intent to harm (mens rea) . In violation of this foundational legal principle, however, are crimes of attempt. The incompetent criminal, for instance, who believes he has poisoned his victim but has instead administered only a harmless substance, can be convicted in a court of law. This poses a challenge to the philosophy of law: is the basis of criminality an act that causes harm, or an act undertaken with the belief that one will cause harm? We pursue a novel approach to this question based on the burgeoning research into the neurocognitive mechanisms of moral judgment, much of which has emphasized the role of multiple interacting systems . Specifically, we suggest that the apparent philosophical conflict between actus reus and crimes of attempt reflects the operation and integration of distinct mechanisms responsible for the processing of information about consequences and beliefs in the service of moral judgment.

To sum up the papers’ findings:

1. They referred to earlier developmental results in children and adults that suggest that children form moral judgments on the basis of outcomes (they will condemn a negative act even if the intention was neutral or even positive) while in adults intention along with outcomes is taken into consideration to form moral judgments.

From a developmental perspective, integrating information about mental states and outcomes presents a particular challenge for young children. When moral scenarios present conflicting information about the outcome of an action and the intention of the actor, young children’s moral judgments and justifications are determined by the action’s outcome rather than the actor’s intention . For example, a person who intends to direct a traveler to the right location but accidentally misdirects him is judged by young children to be “naughtier” than a person who intends to misdirect a passerby but accidentally directs him to the right place . As children mature, they become progressively more likely to make the opposite judgment . Although subsequent research has revealed that young children can use information about intentions to make moral distinctions when consequences are held constant between scenarios , older children have consistently shown greater sensitivity to information about intentions. What develops then is not just “theory of mind,” or the ability to represent the mental states of others, but the ability to integrate this information with information about consequences in the context of moral judgment . Developmental evidence thus suggests that mature moral judgments depend crucially on the cognitive processes responsible for representing and integrating information about beliefs and outcomes.

2. They found using fMRI scans that the Right temporo-parietal Junction (RTPJ) was differentially engaged during the above four cases or combinations of intent and outcome. In particular RTPJ showed maximum activation in cases of attempted harm wherein intention to harm was present but the outcome was still positive. The participants condemned the action despite there be no actual harm and this was reflected in higher activations of RTPJ. It is instructive to note the RTPJ is responsible for belief attributions. Thus, this suggests that there are independent moral judgment functions- one dependent on actions and the other on outcomes.

At the broadest level, the results of the current study suggest that moral judgments depend on the cognitive processes mediated by the RTPJ, previously associated with belief attribution, and, to a lesser extent, the PC, LTPJ, and MPFC, which compose a network of brain regions implicated in theory of mind. Specifically, the results reveal significantly above-baseline activation of the RTPJ for all four conditions (intentional harm, attempted harm, unknowing harm, and all-neutral), highlighting the role of belief attribution during moral judgment. Importantly, however, brain regions involved in belief attribution were not recruited indiscriminately across conditions. In particular, we found a selective increase in the response for the case of attempted harm, in which the protagonist believed that he would harm someone but in fact did not. The differential neural response between experimental conditions suggests an unequal contribution of belief attribution to moral judgment depending not only on what the protagonist believes, as might be expected, but also on the consequences of the protagonist’s behavior. This result offers a new perspective on the integration of information about beliefs and consequences in moral judgment, the focus of our discussion.

3. They found that accidental harm (unlucky innocents) did not recruit the same brain areas (RTPJ) to that large an extent as attempted harm (incompetent criminal). This was despite the protagonists being judged harsher in accidental harm condition vis-a-vis the neutral case (no bad intention and no actual harm). This suggests that another independent moral judgment function is active and which relies on outcome assessment.

The behavioral data suggest that, across conditions, moral judgment is determined primarily by belief information, consistent with the robust RTPJ response for all four conditions. An interesting asymmetry emerged, however, for cases in which belief and outcome information were in conflict, as in situations of attempted harm and unknowing harm. We found that subjects’ moral judgments were determined solely by belief in the case of attempted harm but not unknowing harm. That is, attempted harm (e.g., putting sugar in a friend’s coffee believing it to be poison) was judged fully forbidden, just as though the protagonist had successfully produced the negative outcome of the friend’s death. By contrast, moral judgment of unknowing harm appeared to depend on both the outcome of the action and on the belief state of the actor. Unknowing harm (e.g., putting poison in a friend’s coffee believing it to be sugar) was not judged fully permissible, as compared with the all-neutral condition, in which the protagonist held a neutral belief and produced a neutral outcome.

I find this exciting because I have blogged about this previously in my posts relating to Universal Moral Grammar. In particular I had speculated on there being an Intention predicate, an Action Predicate and a Outcome or Consequence predicate that form this moral grammar. These predicates would each be evaluated separately and independent of each other and their combination would lead to different moral judgments. It is exciting to see that two independent processes related to Intention and Outcome predicate , along with their neural correlates have already been identified. It would only be some time soon that people would also start finding that the nature of the Action undertaken also affects the Moral Judgment to a great extent. The case I can think is that instead of putting poison in the coffee, let us say that the death method was more violent and gory (cutting the throat very slowly while the person is bound). Although the outcome is same, the nature of action would differentially affect the judgments we have towards the protagonists. I would love to see further studies in this direction.

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