Moral severity is represented as a domain-general magnitude

Powell, D., & Horne, Z. (2017). Moral severity is represented as a domain-general magnitude. Experimental Psychology, 64, 142-147.


The severity of moral violations can vary by degree. For instance, although both are immoral, murder is a more severe violation than lying. Though this point is well established in Ethics and the law, relatively little research has been directed at examining how moral severity is represented psychologically. Most prominent moral psychological theories are aimed at explaining first-order moral judgments and are silent on second-order metaethical judgments, such as comparisons of severity. Here, the relative severity of 20 moral violations was established in a preliminary study. Then, a second group of participants were asked to decide which of two moral violations was more severe for all possible combinations of these 20 violations. Participant’s response times exhibited two signatures of domain-general magnitude comparisons: we observed both a distance effect and a semantic congruity effect. These findings suggest that moral severity is represented in a similar fashion as other continuous magnitudes.