Law and Moral Order: The Influence of Legal Outcomes on Moral Judgment

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Abstract

The current project explores a surprisingly overlooked question regarding the influence of legal outcomes on people’s personal morality. In 4 studies utilizing different scenarios of ethically questionable behavior, we compared the influence of 4 potential legal outcomes: indictment, conviction, exoneration, and closing the case without charges (Studies 1–4); we also examined the influence of these outcomes against the benchmark of people’s default moral positions in the absence of legal information (Studies 3–4), and looked at the role of legitimacy as a potential moderator (Studies 2–3). Results revealed that, as expected, legal outcomes affected people’s personal moral judgments. More specifically, we found that: (a) exoneration and closing the case increased the moral permissibility of the conduct at stake relative to conviction and indictment (Studies 1–4); (b) there was largely no impact of judicial versus nonjudicial outcomes, such that no differences were found between closing the case without charges and exoneration, or between indictment and conviction (Studies 1–3); (c) the impact of the specific legal outcome compared with people’s default moral judgments was dependent on the issue at stake (Studies 3–4); and (d) legitimacy did not moderate the results, such that legal outcomes influenced moral judgment whether or not people held the legal system as legitimate. Taken together, this research suggests that both judicial and nonjudicial legal outcomes play an important role in influencing people’s moral judgments, which has not been previously recognized.

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