Cogsci Colloquium – Fiery Cushman

Two Functions of Morality

Yesterday I heard a provocative talk on morality by Fiery Cushman of Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, & Psychological Sciences at IU Cogsci’s Colloquium Series. His research attempts to unravel the mechanisms that motivate differing judgments surrounding wrongness and punishment.

To illustrate, he told us to imagine two men drinking at a bar together. They leave simultaneously and drive home. One man falls asleep at the wheel and hits a tree. He’s okay, the tree’s okay, but he is punished with a $250 fine for the DUI. The other man, however, falls asleep at the wheel and hits a child playing in a yard. Although he’s fine, the child dies and he is punished with 10 years in prison.

In this example both men have equally wrong mental states (intentions) but there were differing outcomes. Cushman’s work examines why punishment focuses so much on outcomes rather than intentions.

The presentation shared numerous studies and concepts but my favorite was the delineation on wrongness vs. punishment judgments. Cushman explained that wrongness judgments are prospective. We begin assessing the mental state that led to the subsequent action. Conversely, punishment judgments are retrospective. We work backwards to find out what caused the ultimate outcome. Because of this, punishment judgments are outcome-based (or biased) and wrongness judgments are intent-based/biased.

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