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Intuitive Moral Judgments Boil Down to Three Components

The "agents-deeds-consequences" model deconstructs how we make moral judgments.

How does the average person go about making moral judgments about other people’s behavior in daily life? New research offers some fresh clues about how most of us intuitively make moral judgments about what is “right and wrong” or “good and bad” behavior. This paper, “Deciphering Moral Intuition: How Agents, Deeds, and Consequences Influence Moral Judgment,” was published October 1 in the journal PLOS ONE.

 B-D-S Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock
Source: B-D-S Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock

For this follow-up study, an international team of researchers from Canada, Germany, and the United States wanted to do a deeper dive into a model of moral judgment they first proposed in 2014, called the Agent, Deed, Consequence (ADC) model. Under this three-component model, the researchers posit that when someone is making a moral judgment, he or she automatically takes three things into consideration: (1) “A” for the agent, which is the character or intent of the person who is doing something; (2) “D” for the deed, or what is being done; and (3) “C” for the consequence, or the outcome that resulted from the deed.

To explore the veracity of their ADC-model, the researchers created a two-part experiment to gain some empirical evidence that could corroborate their hypothesis based on mundane and dramatic real-world situations. In both experiments, the researchers were particularly interested in testing the ADC-model in situations where moral judgment was expected to be more positive if the Agent (A), Deed (D), and Consequence (C) were all three viewed as being positive and "morally righteous."

As an imaginary example of all three ADC components being positive: The “agent” in a hypothetical scenario would be the equivalent of a “church boy” persona who only ever performs selfless deeds with the altruistic intention of making the world a better place (consequence) without a scintilla of self-serving motivation. Conversely, murkier moral territory that involves both positive and negative ADC components might be someone who lies about specific deeds from someone's past that make that person seem untrustworthy because he or she believes not telling the truth will benefit the common good in the future. The authors openly admit that making accurate moral judgments is tricky business.

"There have been many attempts to understand how people make intuitive moral judgments, but they all had significant flaws. This work is important because it provides a framework that can be used to help us determine when the ends may justify the means, or when they may not. This approach allows us to explain not only the variability in the moral status of lying but also the flip side: that telling the truth can be immoral if it is done maliciously and causes harm,” first author Veljko Dubljević of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University said in a statement. Dubljević is a neuroethics researcher who focuses on the cognitive neuroscience of ethics.

"The findings from the study showed that philosophers and the general public made moral judgments in similar ways. This indicates that the structure of moral intuition is the same, regardless of whether one has training in ethics," Dubljević concluded. "In other words, everyone makes these snap moral judgments in a similar way."


Veljko Dubljević, Sebastian Sattler, Eric Racine. "Deciphering Moral Intuition: How Agents, Deeds, and Consequences Influence Moral Judgment." PLOS ONE (First published: October 1, 2018) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0204631

Veljko Dubljević & Eric Racine. "The ADC of Moral Judgment: Opening the Black Box of Moral Intuitions With Heuristics About Agents, Deeds, and Consequences." AJOB Neuroscience (First published online: October 2, 2014) DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2014.939381