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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Relationship Between Social Cognition and Moral Reasoning

  • Author(s): Uttich, Kevin Thomas
  • Advisor(s): Lombrozo, Tania
  • et al.

What is the best way to think about the relationship between Social Cognition and Moral Reasoning? Past psychological research has treated the relationship between the two as one-way with descriptive information from social-cognitive capacities impacting normative moral judgments. However, some resent findings have challenged this account. Across three sets of studies this dissertation examines these challenges, and asks whether the relationship between Social Cognition and Moral Reasoning is best understood as bi-directional. Further, two sub questions are investigated; would a bi- directional relationship require a drastic revision of our understanding of social cognition and does the influence of norm information depend on the type of norm involved?

The first set of studies examines the influence of norms on Theory of Mind judgments. Theory of Mind, the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states, has traditionally been conceptualized as analogous to a scientific theory. However, recent work in philosophy and psychology has documented a "side-effect effect" suggesting that moral evaluations influence mental state ascriptions, and in particular whether a behavior is described as having been performed `intentionally.' This evidence challenges the idea that theory of mind is analogous to scientific psychology in serving the function of predicting and explaining, rather than evaluating, behavior. In three experiments, we demonstrate that moral evaluations do inform ascriptions of intentional action, but that this relationship arises because behavior that conforms to norms (moral or otherwise) is less informative about underlying mental states than is behavior that violates norms. This analysis preserves the traditional understanding of theory of mind as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior, but also suggests the importance of normative considerations in social cognition.

The second set of studies looks at the use of norms in explanation. In explaining behavior, people often refer to mental states such as beliefs or desires. But in some cases, behavior can also be explained by direct appeal to norms, moral or otherwise (e.g., "she returned the wallet because it was the right thing to do"). We investigate whether and when norm explanations are accepted (Experiment 1) and produced (Experiment 2) to better understand the relationship between norms and mental states in explaining behavior. In particular, do norm explanations assume particular mediating mental states, like the agent's knowledge of the norm? We find that participants frequently accept and produce norm explanations for behavior when the behavior matches the norm, even when the agent's belief about the norm is incorrect. The findings contribute to a growing body of work suggesting that mental state inferences and reasoning are not detailed and automatic, but instead remain relatively underspecified for the purposes of many everyday judgments.

Finally, the third set of studies investigates whether people accept "ethical explanations," explanations that cite moral norms (and not merely people's beliefs about moral norms) to account for social-historical changes, such as the abolition of slavery or the extension of voting rights to women. An ethical explanation for women's suffrage, for example, might cite the injustice of withholding the right to vote on the basis of sex. Such explanations pose a challenge to dominant accounts of explanation, which propose that explanations cite causes or descriptive generalizations. In two experiments, we find evidence that people do accept and provide ethical explanations, and that variation in ratings and production of these explanations is correlated with two separate types of meta-ethical commitments: belief in moral objectivism and in moral progress. These results suggest that some people accept ethical explanations because their particular meta-ethical commitments lead them to conceptualize moral norms in a way that allows them to serve as legitimate explanations. The findings also shed light on variation in moral beliefs across individuals despite reasonable consistency in moral beliefs within individuals.

Taken together the results of these studies argue that the relationship between social cognition and moral understanding is indeed bi-directional. In addition to the influence the information from social cognitive judgments can have on our moral reasoning, our normative understanding can provide a source of information useful in making social-cognitive judgments. The results also indicate that a drastic revision of our understanding of social cognition is not necessary and while all norm types seem to have an influence, different norm types have unique relationships.

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