Developmental psychologists have long argued that the capacity to distinguish moral and conventional transgressions develops across cultures and emerges early in life. Children reliably treat moral transgressions as more wrong, more punishable, independent of structures of authority, and universally applicable. However, previous studies have not yet examined the role of these features in mature moral cognition. Using a battery of adult-appropriate cases (including vehicular and sexual assault, reckless behavior, and violations of etiquette and social contracts) we demonstrate that these features also distinguish moral from conventional transgressions in mature moral cognition. Each hypothesized moral transgressions was treated as strongly and clearly immoral. However, our data suggest that although the majority of hypothesized conventional transgressions also form an obvious cluster, social conventions seem to lie along a continuum that stretches from mere matters of personal preference (e.g., getting tattoos or wearing black shoes with a brown belt) to transgressions that are treated as matters for legitimate social sanction (e.g., violating traffic laws or not paying your taxes). We use these findings to discuss issues of universality, domain-specificity, and the importance of using a wellstudied set of moral scenarios to examine clinical populations and the underlying neural architecture of moral cognition.
Research on moral psychology has frequently appealed to three, apparently consistent patterns: (1) Males are more likely to engage in transgressions involving harm than females; (2) educated people are likely to be more thorough in their moral deliberations because they have better resources for rationally navigating and evaluating complex information; (3) political affiliations and religious ideologies are an important source of our moral principles. Here, we provide a test of how four factors ‐ gender, education, politics and religion ‐ affect intuitive moral judgments in unfamiliar situations. Using a large-scale sample of participants (n=8778) who voluntarily logged on to the internet-based Moral Sense Test (available online at <ext-link ext-link-type="url" xlink:href="http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu">http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu</ext-link>), we analyzed responses to 145 unique moral and conventional scenarios that varied widely in content. Although each demographic or cultural factor sometimes yielded a statistically significant difference in the predicted direction (e.g., men giving more utilitarian judgments than women; religious individuals giving more deontological/rule-based judgments than atheists), these differences were consistently associated with extremely small effect sizes. We conclude that gender, education, politics and religion are likely to be relatively insignificant for moral judgments of unfamiliar scenarios. We discuss these results in light of current debates concerning the mechanisms underlying our moral judgments and, especially, the idea that we share a universal moral sense that constrains the range of cross-cultural variation.