Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment
It is widely considered a universal feature of human moral psychology that reasons for actions are taken into account in most moral judgments. However, most evidence for this moral intent hypothesis comes from large-scale industrialized societies. We used a standardized methodology to test the moral intent hypothesis across eight traditional small-scale societies (ranging from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist to horticulturalist) and two Western societies (one urban, one rural). The results show substantial variation in the degree to which an individual’s intentions influence moral judgments of his or her actions, with intentions in some cases playing no role at all. This dimension of cross-cultural variation in moral judgment may have important implications for understanding cultural disagreements over wrongdoing.Intent and mitigating circumstances play a central role in moral and legal assessments in large-scale industrialized societies. Although these features of moral assessment are widely assumed to be universal, to date, they have only been studied in a narrow range of societies. We show that there is substantial cross-cultural variation among eight traditional small-scale societies (ranging from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist to horticulturalist) and two Western societies (one urban, one rural) in the extent to which intent and mitigating circumstances influence moral judgments. Although participants in all societies took such factors into account to some degree, they did so to very different extents, varying in both the types of considerations taken into account and the types of violations to which such considerations were applied. The particular patterns of assessment characteristic of large-scale industrialized societies may thus reflect relatively recently culturally evolved norms rather than inherent features of human moral judgment.