Mindel Scott

Legal Morals

Imagine taking a walk in your city one evening. You arrive at an intersection with a traffic light. The pedestrian light says stop, but the whole street is empty. You wait and wait before finally deciding to cross the road. There are no cars coming, and you keep walking. Technically, what you did was illegal. But if you asked the average person if what you did was immoral, they would probably say no. Discussing this issue before an Australian audience in 1971, he pointed out that the relaxation of abortion laws in Britain helped to solve at least in part the problem of “unwanted children, especially illegitimate children, by reducing maternal mortality from illegal abortion and reducing illegal abortion.” Another explanation for this effect is that intentional harm (as opposed to accidental harm) involves additional “symbolic” harm to the victim (Darley & Huff, 1990) beyond bodily injury or property damage. In particular, the sensitivity of judges and lawyers in this sense might reflect their training in recognizing that these additional consequences, and not the adverse outcome per se, can be inferred from intentional harm. Compared to accidental damage, intentional damage can result in greater subjective losses such as pain, suffering or emotional distress for the victim. Specific knowledge of the law could explain the overestimation of intentional harm by judges and lawyers. Nevertheless, this finding has important implications, as the harm amplification effect can inflate legal judgments.

In summary, our findings suggest that legal expertise could improve intentionality detection skills without cancelling out the harm amplification effect. This reflects a partial gap between how people actually make decisions and the underlying assumptions of the legal system. It is therefore not the humanist who must offer an explanation of value. What explanation might be needed for humans to naturally pursue human interests, thus linking laws and institutions to human concerns? It is only when someone tries to deviate from this most natural aspiration of all aspirations that questions must be raised. Only when someone establishes a law superior to what is good for humanity should doubts be expressed. Because here an explanation or justification of a moral basis makes sense. The burden of proof lies with the one who departs from the ordinary path of morality – not on the one who continues to maintain its relevant, useful and democratically produced morality, laws and institutions. Information about the transgressor`s mental state influenced moral decision-making in all groups. Our results confirmed that, compared to accidental harm, intentional harm was considered morally inferior (Cushman, 2008; Young & Saxe, 2008), received harsher penalties (Buckholtz et al., 2015; Cushman, 2008) and were considered more harmful (Ames and Fiske, 2013, 2015). However, judges and lawyers assigned far fewer penalties to accidental damage than to witnesses, as there were no differences between groups for intentional damage. Previous data from healthy (Decety et al., 2012) and clinical (Baez et al., 2014, 2016) populations show that the understanding of intentionality is higher in intentional harm than in accidental harm, suggesting that intentionality is less clear or explicit and involves greater cognitive demands (Baez et al., 2016). It has also been suggested that a robust representation of the other`s mental state is necessary to exonerate accidental harm (Young et al., 2007; Young and Saxe, 2009b).

This robust presentation overrides a predominant reaction to salient information about actual damage. The current results therefore suggest that legal experts can better recognize the actor`s intentionality, represent his mental state, and override the dominant reaction to the outcome. In law, guilt is judged, among other things, by the mental state that accompanied a wrong action (Buckholtz & Faigman, 2014). The punishment of a harmful act depends on the determination of moral culpability (in criminal law contexts) or liability (in tort law) (Buckholtz and Faigman, 2014). Such provisions require inferences about the beliefs, intentions and motivations of the person being considered for punishment (Buckholtz & Marois, 2012). Therefore, our findings suggest that the expertise of judges and lawyers could improve the ability to recognize intentionality, which could lead to more objective assessments of sentences. However, as we have not included specific measures of intentionality recognition capabilities, future studies by legal policymakers should test this interpretation. Our findings could have important implications for contextual modulations of cognitive processes (Baez et al., 2017; Barutta et al., 2011; Cosmelli and IbáÁñez, 2008; Ibáñez et al., 2017; Ibaè±ez and Manes, 2012; Melloni et al., 2014). Morality is a fundamental component of human cultures and provides a mechanism for enforcing social norms (Yoder & Decety, 2014). In fact, morality depends on prescriptive norms about how people should interact with each other, including concepts such as justice, equity, and rights (Yoder & Decety, 2014). However, in addition to ordinary moral norms, law plays an additional regulatory role in social life (Schleim et al., 2011). In fact, neuroimaging studies have shown similarities between the neural underpinnings of moral and legal decision-making in professional lawyers, suggesting significant overlap in cognitive processing between the two normative processes (Schleim et al., 2011).

These partial overlaps between moral and legal decision-making highlight the potential translational implications of our findings. The legal system must regulate sources of bias between defendants, jurors, lawyers, and judges (Greely, 2011). Our findings provide unique evidence that judges and lawyers are less affected by typical biases in morally charged third-party decisions. Thus, the results support a “reduced bias” legal approach (Gewirtz, 1996), at least with respect to the effects of speech manipulation and associated physiological signals.