Kill or Die: Moral Judgment Alters Linguistic Coding of Causality

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Abstract

What is the relationship between the language people use to describe an event and their moral judgments? We test the hypothesis that moral judgment and causative verbs rely on the same underlying mental model of people’s actions. Experiment 1a finds that participants choose different verbs to describe the major variants of a moral dilemma, the trolley problem, mirroring differences in their wrongness judgments: they described direct harm with a single causative verb (Adam killed the man), and indirect harm with an intransitive verb in a periphrastic construction (Adam caused the man to die). Experiments 1b and 2 separate physical causality from moral valuation by varying whether the victim is a person or animal and whether the harmful action rescues people or inanimate objects. The results show that people’s moral judgments lead them to portray a causal event as either more or less direct and intended, which in turn shapes their verb choices. Experiment 3 finds the same basic asymmetry in verb usage in a production task in which participants freely described what happened.

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