Harm & Other/Purity & Self

Harming Ourselves and Defiling Others

Chakroff, A., Dungan, J., & Young, L. (2013). Harming ourselves and defiling others: what determines a moral domain?. PloS one, 8(9), e74434.

Last week in our journal discussion group, I presented a paper regarding self/other-directed violations and the categorization of violations as harm versus purity. In two studies, Chakroff, Dungan, and Young (2014) tested the hypotheses that (1) self-directed acts would be judged as more impure than harmful, while other-directed acts would be classified as more harmful than impure, (2) political conservatism would correlate to a higher degree with self versus other-directed acts, (3) intent would play a larger role in other-directed over self-directed acts, and (4) purity (versus harm) judgments and self-directed (versus other) would reflect more poorly on the agent’s character than the wrongness of the act itself.

The first study found support for the first three hypotheses but not the fourth. Self-directed acts were rated as more impure than harmful; and other-directed acts were more harmful than impure. Strong conservatism was associated with harsher wrongness judgments for self-directed acts (due to a link between purity and conservatism, & between purity and self-directed acts). The intent of the actor was influential for other-directed acts (due to the link between other-directed and harm).

The second study aimed to use better, empirically tested measures to obtain more valid ratings of moral character versus moral action. With the new measures in place, the authors did find support for the final hypothesis: self-directed actors were judged more harshly, while other-directed actions were judged more harshly.

This research showed a link between (im)purity and self-directed acts and between harm and other-directed acts. Results map onto an evolutionary account of morality – that harm norms are for regulating interpersonal behavior, while purity norms are for protecting the self from pathogens. It also examined interesting factors, including intention and character assessments when presented with harm versus purity violations.

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