People’s Intentions Affect Your Judgments of Wrongness

Knowingly violating moral rules is judged harshly.

Posted Jun 04, 2018

Tumisu CC0 via Pixabay
Source: Tumisu CC0 via Pixabay

A common defense people give when they do something wrong is “I didn’t mean to do it.”  That defense assumes that the intention behind your act matters in determining the severity of your action. The legal system recognizes this as well. Performing an action with the intention of killing someone is murder and carries a stiffer penalty than performing an action without the intention of killing someone that still results in their death (which is called manslaughter). 

What aspects of situations affect whether the knowledge of the actor affects your judgments of how wrong they were?

This question was explored in a 2018 paper in the journal Cognitive Science by Carly Giffin and Tonia Lombrozo. 

They were particularly interested in the distinction between rules that have some moral character and rules that seem arbitrary. Moral rules are ones in which it seems obvious that the action being restricted would cause harm to others. For example, telling a child not to throw a rock at someone else is a moral rule, because it seems obvious that if the child hits someone else with a rock that person will get hurt. In contrast, the PG-13 rating on movies seems more arbitrary. It is not obvious why a child who is 12 years, 364 days old is more susceptible to harm in watching a move than a child who is exactly 13-years-old. 

These researchers were interested in the prospect that knowingly doing something wrong is judged far worse for moral rules than for arbitrary rules. That is, knowingly throwing a rock at someone seems far worse than throwing a rock without realizing someone was there. In contrast, a 12-year-old who goes to a PG-13 movie doesn’t seem to be behaving that much worse if they know the rule than if they don’t. 

To test this possibility, the researchers constructed a set of twelve vignettes about actions that children took. Half the stories were set up so that the rule was either arbitrary while the other half involved a rule that had a moral basis. An arbitrary rule might involve the decision of the school to have children sit at assigned lunch tables so that they can find students if they need them. A moral rule might involve a rule against throwing a ball at classmates. The stories were set up so that the degree of harm caused by a wrong action was equated. For example, the ball a student threw was made of foam, so nobody was hurt. 

Participants were shown only one story. First, they were told the story assuming the child was unaware they were violating the rule. For example, the child sitting at the wrong lunch table was unaware that table assignments had changed that week. The child throwing a ball was unaware there was someone sitting where the ball was aimed. They rated how wrong the action was and how much the child should be punished. 

Then, participants were told to imagine the child actually knew that what they were doing was wrong and the again rated how wrong the action was and how much the child should be punished.

Unsurprisingly, people thought that an action done knowingly was more wrong and should be punished more severely than an action done unknowingly. However, the increase in the judgment of wrongness and the penalty went up more strongly for moral wrongs than for arbitrary wrongs.  That is, knowingly throwing a ball at someone is judged to be worse than knowingly sitting at the wrong table even if the specific action did not cause harm.

This concept of the rule being arbitrary is the important difference between these types of judgments. In another study, participants were shown vignettes about an alien planet. The rules were either described as arbitrary (these aliens can’t see gory movies until they are 15, though there isn’t much difference between 14-and-a-half and 15-and-a-half, so 15 was selected as the cutoff) or selected for a specific reason (there is a developmental change that happens at exactly 15-years-old that determined the age). As before, people judged the wrongness and degree of punishment for someone who violates the rule. First, the judgment was made assuming the alien didn’t know about the rule and then was made assuming the alien broke the rule intentionally.

As before, breaking a rule intentionally was judged to be worse than breaking a rule unintentionally. Breaking a rule intentionally was seen as less severe when the rule was arbitrary than when it was not. 

These findings suggest that people are sensitive to where rules come from. We recognize that social conventions matter and that people should not break them. That said, we are particularly sensitive to rules that are in place because the action itself can cause harm directly. We are particularly concerned about people who knowingly break rules that can cause harm. We believe that they are wrong to break these moral rules, and we think they should be punished accordingly.


Giffin, C., & Lombrozo, T. (2018). An actor's knowledge and intent are more important in evaluating moral transgressions than conventional transgressions. Cognitive Science, 42, 105-133.