, Volume 20, Issue 6, pp 1327-1335
Date: 12 Apr 2013

Cognitive parallels between moral judgment and modal judgment


A central question in the study of moral psychology is how immediate intuition interacts with more thoughtful deliberation in the generation of moral judgments. The present study sheds additional light on this question by comparing adults’ judgments of moral permissibility with their judgments of physical possibility—a form of judgment that also involves the coordination of intuition and deliberation (Shtulman, Cognitive Development 24:293–309, 2009). Participants (N = 146) were asked to judge the permissibility of 16 extraordinary actions (e.g., Is it ever morally permissible for an 80-year-old woman to have sex with a 20-year-old man?) and the possibility of 16 extraordinary events (e.g., Will it ever be physically possible for humans to bring an extinct species back to life?). Their tendency to judge the extraordinary events as possible was predictive of their tendency to judge the extraordinary actions as permissible, even when controlling for disgust sensitivity. Moreover, participants’ justification and response latency patterns were correlated across domains. Taken together, these findings suggest that modal judgment and moral judgment may be linked by a common inference strategy, with some individuals focusing on why actions/events that do not occur cannot occur, and others focusing on how those same actions/events could occur.