Presumed Innocent? How Tacit Assumptions of Intentional Structure Shape Moral Judgment

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Forthcoming)

73 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2018 Last revised: 17 Oct 2018

See all articles by Sydney Levine

Sydney Levine

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

John Mikhail

Georgetown University Law Center

Alan Leslie

Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Date Written: July 3, 2018

Abstract

The presumption of innocence is not only a bedrock principle of American law, but also a fundamental human right. The psychological underpinnings of this presumption, however, are not well understood. To make progress, one important task is to explain how adults and children infer the goals and intentional structure of complex actions, especially when a single action has more than one salient effect. Many theories of moral judgment have either ignored this intention inference problem or have simply assumed a particular solution without empirical support. We propose that this problem may be solved by appealing to domain-specific prior knowledge that is either built-up over the probability of prior intentions or built-in as part of core cognition. We further propose a specific solution to this problem in the moral domain: a good intention prior, which entails a rebuttable presumption that if an action has both good and bad effects, the actor intends the good effects and not the bad effects. Finally, in a series of novel experiments we provide the first empirical support – from both adults and preschool children – for the existence of this good intention prior.

Keywords: moral development, moral cognition, moral grammar, theory of mind, intention inference, goal inference, presumption of innocence, prior knowledge, core knowledge, infant cognition, double effect, mens rea, trolley problem

Suggested Citation

Levine, Sydney and Mikhail, John and Leslie, Alan, Presumed Innocent? How Tacit Assumptions of Intentional Structure Shape Moral Judgment (July 3, 2018). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Forthcoming). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3207650

Sydney Levine

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

John Mikhail (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9392 (Phone)
202-662-9409 (Fax)

Alan Leslie

Rutgers University, New Brunswick ( email )

New Brunswick, NJ
United States

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