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Moral Valence and Semantic Intuitions


Despite the swirling tide of controversy surrounding the work of Machery et al. (Cognition 92:B1–B12, 2004), the cross-cultural differences they observed in semantic intuitions about the reference of proper names have proven to be robust. In the present article, we report cross-cultural and individual differences in semantic intuitions obtained using new experimental materials. In light of the pervasiveness of the Knobe effect (Analysis 63:190–193, 2003, Philos Psychol 16:309–324, 2003, Behav Brain Sci 33:315–329, 2010; Pettit and Knobe in Mind Lang 24:586–604, 2009) and the fact that Machery et al.’s original materials incorporated elements of wrongdoing but did not control for their influence, we also examined the question of whether the moral valence of actions described in experimental materials might affect participants’ responses. Our results suggest that uncontrolled moral valence did not distort participants’ judgments in previous research. Our findings provide further confirmation of the robustness of cross-cultural and intra-cultural differences in semantic intuitions and strengthen the philosophical challenge that they pose.

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  1. All research materials were written in English. Since the official language of instruction for all course at the University of Hong Kong is English, there should not be any worries about the East Asian students’ comprehension of the materials.

  2. These percentages are reported in Machery (2012, 40).

  3. The two exceptions to this rule come from our [reference omitted for blind review], in which we report cross-cultural differences in response to Machery et al.’s (2004) “Jonah” cases and to slightly different versions of their Gödel cases. In that paper, we constructed alternative Gödel cases because Gödel1 begins by presupposing that Gödel really did discover the incompleteness of arithmetic but then asks participants a few sentences later to suppose that he did not. We wondered whether participants would be able to keep track of the right set of presuppositions, and so constructed modified versions of Gödel1 and Gödel2 in which the relevant presuppositions were presented in an easy to follow manner. The same pattern of cross-cultural differences was observed—Western participants were more likely to have Kripkean intuitions about these cases than East Asians. We also reported finding cross-cultural differences in response to two cases that Machery et al. (2004) patterned after Kripke’s (1972/1980, pp. 66–67) well-known Jonah case. In both cases, Western participants were significantly more likely to choose the Kripkean answer than East Asians.

  4. We should note that, again from our subjective perspective, this seems to be changing, as more people within the last couple of years have been reporting failures of replication of Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich’s (2001) results and expressing skepticism about the way their study was performed.

  5. Cf. Knobe (2010), and Alfano, Beebe, and Robinson (2012) for overviews of the various kinds of explanation that have been offered of the Knobe effect.

  6. Other experimental philosophers (e.g., Wesley Buckwalter, David Rose) have had the same idea but have been unable to find any reliable effects of moral valence on semantic intuitions. Because their attempts to uncover a Knobe effect on semantic intuitions did not succeed, reports of their efforts remain unpublished.

  7. An additional 7 American college students of non-western descent and 2 HKU students who were not native Chinese speakers participated in the study but were excluded from the analysis. The order of the vignettes was counterbalanced. Participants were offered either extra credit in a college course or a chance to win a $175 gift card. Questionnaires were administered via an online platform hosted by

  8. US: Z = −.949, p > .05. HK: Z = −1.698, p > .05.

  9. χ2 (1, N = 352) = 5.407, p < .05, Cramér’s V = .12 (small effect size).

  10. US: χ2 (1, N = 576) = 56.643, p < .001, Cramér’s V = .31 (medium effect size). HK: χ2 (1, N = 128) = 6.222, p < .05, Cramér’s V = .22 (small effect size).

  11. χ2 (1, N = 252) = .249, p > .05, Cramér’s V = .03.

  12. Conscientiousness: χ2 (9, N = 137) = 15.407, p = .08, Cramér’s V = .34 (medium effect size). Moral attentiveness: χ2 (34, N = 143) = 47.201, p = .066, Cramér’s V = .58 (large effect size).

  13. Moral attentiveness: χ2 (34, N = 143) = 49.984, p < .05, Cramér’s V = .59 (large effect size). Extraversion: χ2 (12, N = 139) = 29.195, p < .01, Cramér’s V = .46 (medium effect size).

  14. χ2 (10, N = 139) = 17.318, p = .069, Cramér’s V = .35 (medium effect size).

  15. r = .41 (medium effect size), p = .064.

  16. χ2 (6, N = 42) = 12.561, p = .051, Cramér’s V = .55 (large effect size).

  17. χ2 (6, N = 42) = 11.274, p = .08, Cramér’s V = .52 (large effect size). Openness to experience is associated with creativity, curiosity, imagination, variety, emotional self-awareness, and a preference for novelty, adventure, art, and beauty.

  18. χ2 (2, N = 124) = 6.249, p < .05, Cramér’s V = .22 (small effect size).

  19. The differences were again significant: χ2 (2, N = 180) = 12.057, p < .01, Cramér’s V = .26 (small effect size).

  20. χ2 (2, N = 180) = 1.260, p > .05, Cramér’s V = .08.


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Correspondence to James R. Beebe.



Machery et al.’s (2004) original Jonah cases:

Jonah1. In high-school, German students learn that Attila founded Germany in the second century A.D. They are taught that Attila was the king of a nomadic tribe that migrated from the east to settle in what would become Germany. Germans also believe that Attila was a merciless warrior and leader who expelled the Romans from Germany, and that after his victory against the Romans, Attila organized a large and prosperous kingdom.

Now suppose that none of this is true. No merciless warrior expelled the Romans from Germany, and Germany was not founded by a single individual. Actually, the facts are the following. In the fourth century A.D., a nobleman of low rank, called ‘Raditra,’ ruled a small and peaceful area in what today is Poland, several hundred miles from Germany. Raditra was a wise and gentle man who managed to preserve the peace in the small land he was ruling. For this reason, he quickly became the main character of many stories and legends. These stories were passed on from one generation of peasants to the next. But often when the story was passed on the peasants would embellish it, adding imaginary details and dropping some true facts to make the story more exciting. From a peaceful nobleman of low rank, Raditra was gradually transformed into a warrior fighting for his land. When the legend reached Germany, it told of a merciless warrior who was victorious against the Romans. By the eighth century A.D., the story told of an Eastern king who expelled the Romans and founded Germany. By that time, not a single true fact remained in the story.

Meanwhile, as the story was told and retold, the name ‘Raditra’ was slowly altered: it was successively replaced by ‘Aditra,’ then by ‘Arritrak’ in the sixth century, by ‘Arrita’ and ‘Arrila’ in the seventh and finally by ‘Attila.’ The story about the glorious life of Attila was written down in the eighth century by a scrupulous Catholic monk, from whom all our beliefs are derived. Of course, Germans know nothing about these real events. They believe a story about a merciless Eastern king who expelled the Romans and founded Germany.

When a contemporary German high-school student says “Attila was the king who drove the Romans from Germany,” is he actually talking about the wise and gentle nobleman, Raditra, who is the original source of the Attila legend, or is he talking about a fictional person, someone who does not really exist?

  1. (A)

    He is talking about Raditra.

  2. (B)

    He is talking about a fictional person who does not really exist.

Jonah2. Lau Mei Ling is a high-school student in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. Like everyone who goes to high-school in Guangzhou, Mei Ling believes that Chan Wai Man was a Guangdong nobleman who had to take refuge in the wild mountains around Guangzhou in the eleventh century A.D., because Chan Wai Man was in love with the daughter of the ruthless Government Minister Lee, and the Minister did not approve. Everyone in Lau Mei Ling’s high-school believes that Chan Wai Man had to live as a thief in the mountains around Guangzhou, and that he would often steal from the rich allies of the Minister Lee and distribute their goods to the poor peasants.

Now suppose that none of this is true. No Guangdong nobleman ever lived in the mountains around Guangzhou, stealing from the wealthy people to help the peasants. The real facts are the following. In one of the monasteries around Guangzhou, there was a helpful monk called ‘Leung Yiu Pang.’ Leung Yiu Pang was always ready to help the peasants around his monastery, providing food in the winter, giving medicine to the sick and helping the children. Because he was so kind, he quickly became the main character of many stories. These stories were passed on from one generation of peasants to the next. Over the years, the story changed slowly as the peasants would forget some elements of the story and add other elements. In one version, Leung Yiu Pang was described as a rebel fighting Minister Lee. Progressively the story came to describe the admirable deeds of a generous thief. By the late fourteenth century, the story was about a generous nobleman who was forced to live as a thief because of his love for the Minister’s daughter. At length, not a single true fact remained in the story.

Meanwhile, the name ‘Leung Yiu Pang’ was slowly altered: it was successively replaced by ‘Cheung Wai Pang’ in the twelfth century, ‘Chung Wai Man’ in the thirteenth, and finally by ‘Chan Wai Man.’ The story about the adventurous life of Chan Wai Man was written down in the fifteenth century by a scrupulous historian, from whom all our beliefs are derived. Of course, Mei Ling, her classmates and her parents know nothing about these real events. Mei Ling believes a story about a generous thief who was fighting against a mean minister.

When Mei Ling says “Chan Wai Man stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” is she actually talking about the generous monk, Leung Yiu Pang, who is the original source of the legend about Chan Wai Man, or is she talking about a fictional person, someone who does not really exist?

  1. (A)

    She is talking about the generous monk, Leung Yiu Pang.

  2. (B)

    She is talking about a fictional person who does not really exist.

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Beebe, J.R., Undercoffer, R.J. Moral Valence and Semantic Intuitions. Erkenn 80, 445–466 (2015).

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  • Semantics
  • Philosophy of language
  • Cross-cultural
  • Experimental philosophy
  • Knobe effect
  • Moral valence