Moral appraisals guide intuitive legal determinations

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We sought to understand how basic competencies in moral reasoning influence the application of private, institutional, and legal rules. Hypotheses: We predicted that moral appraisals, implicating both outcome-based and mental state reasoning, would shape participants’ interpretation of rules and statutes—and asked whether these effects arise differentially under intuitive and reflective reasoning conditions. Method: In six vignette-based experiments (total N = 2,473; 293 university law students [67% women; age bracket mode: 18–22 years] and 2,180 online workers [60% women; mean age = 31.9 years]), participants considered a wide range of written rules and laws and determined whether a protagonist had violated the rule in question. We manipulated morally relevant aspects of each incident—including the valence of the rule’s purpose (Study 1) and of the outcomes that ensued (Studies 2 and 3), as well as the protagonist’s accompanying mental state (Studies 5 and 6). In two studies, we simultaneously varied whether participants decided under time pressure or following a forced delay (Studies 4 and 6). Results: Moral appraisals of the rule’s purpose, the agent’s extraneous blameworthiness, and the agent’s epistemic state impacted legal determinations and helped to explain participants’ departure from rules’ literal interpretation. Counter-literal verdicts were stronger under time pressure and were weakened by the opportunity to reflect. Conclusions: Under intuitive reasoning conditions, legal determinations draw on core competencies in moral cognition, such as outcome-based and mental state reasoning. In turn, cognitive reflection dampens these effects on statutory interpretation, allowing text to play a more influential role.

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Law and Human Behavior
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