Moral Person Perception
A major focus of my research at present is moral person perception. Imagine that you have been set up on a blind date. You talk for hours and the conversation flows reasonably well. The next day you call your friend and she asks you what he’s like. Did he seem like a kind, trustworthy person? Was he warm, talkative? Was he intelligent, capable? These three questions tap the social dimensions of morality, warmth, and competence, and are fundamental to person perception because they address the three kinds of question we must answer when we meet a new partner: Do they wish us well (morality)? Do they have the social support to enact their intentions (warmth)? And do they have the capability to enact their intentions (competence)? Morality dominates person perception. However, little is known about how the different kinds of moral judgments people make, the values they hold, and the behaviours they perform impact person perception.
The complexity of person perception when it comes to moral decisions can be seen in Les Miserables. On the one hand you have Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to years in penal servitude for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. On the other hand you have Inspector Javert, a rigid devotee of the law and God’s code, insisting that Valjean be punished for his crime. Neither is strictly speaking immoral, but they act morally in different ways, drawing on different ethical principles to justify their actions. It seems, too, that while both moral, they will be perceived in different ways. These different ways of thinking about moral issues – and moral people – are reflected in the philosophical literature between two key approaches to ethics: consequentialism and deontology. In our Les Miserable example, the law-loving Javert would be classed as deontological, while the bread-stealing Valjean would be classed as consequentialist.
In my work I have explored how deontological and consequentialist decision makers are perceived, and the implications this might have for why we hold the moral intuitions we do, showing that person perception is not just sensitive to whether someone has moral qualities, but the kinds of moral judgments they make. I have shown that people who make consequentialist moral judgments are trusted less than those who don’t, demonstrating a “cost of being consequentialist” that, through partner choice mechanisms, could help explain why our moral intuitions lean deontological.