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Cruel nature: harmfulness as an important, overlooked dimension in judgments of moral standing

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>04/2014
Issue number1
Number of pages17
Pages (from-to)108-124
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Entities that possess moral standing can be wronged and deserve our moral consideration. Past perspectives on the folk psychology of moral standing have focused exclusively on the role of “patiency” (the capacity to experience pain or pleasure) and “agency” (usually defined and operationalized in terms of intelligence or cognitive ability). We contend that harmfulness (i.e., having a harmful vs. benevolent disposition) is an equally if not more important determinant of moral standing. We provide support for this hypothesis across four studies using non-human animals as targets. We show that the effect of harmfulness on attributions of moral standing is independent from patiency and intelligence (Studies 1–2), that this effect pertains specifically to an animal’s harmful disposition rather than its capacity to act upon this disposition (Study 3), and that it primarily reflects a parochial concern for human welfare in particular (Study 4). Our findings highlight an important, overlooked dimension in the psychology of moral standing that has implications for real-world decisions that affect non-human animals. Our findings also help clarify the conditions under which people perceive patiency and agency as related versus truly independent dimensions.