While many moral norms are arguably universal1, I will focus here on a kind of moral meta-norm, namely, the importance of an actor’s intentions for people who make moral evaluations of their actions. Some of the best evidence for the universal importance of intentions comes from developmental psychology, showing how moral reasoning works before children have received much cultural learning about social rules. Experiments using animated characters have shown that even completely pre-verbal infants implicitly prefer characters who try to help another character, but fail, to those who try to hinder another character but accidentally help them2.

A further development takes place when children aged 6 or 7 stop explicitly condemning characters that accidentally harm another character, despite having intentions to help them. This phenomenon is generally known as the outcome-to-intention shift3, implying that children move from a focus on morally evaluating the outcomes of actions to evaluating the intentions behind the actions. This is, in fact, a misnomer, as only bad outcomes with good intentions are affected by the transition. Good intentions with good outcomes are always judged favorably, while bad intentions with bad outcomes are always judged negatively. The only other interesting combination is that of bad intentions with good outcomes. Previous work showed that children as young as four nearly always judge such cases unfavorably4. My Ph.D. student, Camilo Moreno, and I recently replicated that result with a cultural group (relatively low-income Colombian children) whose moral reasoning had never before been studied like this. We also demonstrated that it held true even for children as young as three who did not pass a standard false-belief task – that is, they seemed incapable of representing beliefs of another person that differed from their own5.

“…it makes evolutionary sense that people would be hyper-vigilant about harmful intent, reading people’s morally relevant actions for clues of possible intentions to harm the values and structures that their own group holds dear.”

If we assume that these young children are condemning someone for an intention to break a rule, it seems strange that while unable to understand that someone can have a wrong belief, they are yet able to understand that someone can have a wrong intention (that is, an intention to break a rule that they themselves would follow). A more natural interpretation is perhaps that across the various scenarios that we used, the characters are being judged for an intention to harm. We already know that three-year-old children are capable of understanding the concept of harm because even three-year-old children easily distinguish between two types of normative rules: conventional rules, which are authority dependent, vary from place to place, and tend to have less serious consequences if violated; and moral rules, which are independent of whether an authority figure says they should be obeyed, apply everywhere, and whose violations have serious consequences6. Only the second type of rule is associated with the idea of harm: when asked why moral rules should be followed, children spontaneously bring up the idea of harmful repercussions to not following them but tend not to mention harm in connection with conventional rules.

In contrast, authors such as Jonathan Haidt7 have argued from a “moral pluralist” point of view that concerns about harm (and its positive counterpart, care) represent just one of at least five foundational systems in human moral psychology. Much of the evidence for this comes from experiments in which working conservative, working-class, or non-Western participants would condemn much more harshly than their liberal, middle-class, or Western counterparts such transgressions as having sex with an already-dead chicken, cleaning a lavatory with the national flag, or incest between consenting adults, even though it was made clear that these transgressions would not be witnessed by anyone other than the perpetrators, and thus no material harm would result.

Reflecting on these experiments in the light of the importance of intentional understanding in moral development, it occurs to me that although no material harm resulted in the vignettes, the characters in them may have been judged for their apparent intentions to harm: not to do material harm, but to do symbolic harm to a group, authority or belief system. From the perspective of cultural group selection8, it makes evolutionary sense that people would be hyper-vigilant about harmful intent, reading people’s morally relevant actions for clues of possible intentions to harm the values and structures that their own group holds dear. The importance of all this is that it instructs us to remember that our ideological opponents may feel threatened by our ideas, just as we can feel threatened by theirs.


  1. Brown, D. E. (1991). Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Hamlin, J. K. (2013). Failed attempts to help and harm: Intention versus outcome in preverbal infants’ social evaluations. Cognition, 128, 451–474.
  3. Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgment of the Child. London: Paul, Trench, & Trubner.
  4. Cushman, F., Sheketoff, R., Wharton, S., & Carey, S. (2013). The development of intent-based moral judgement. Cognition, 127, 6–21.
  5. Moreno, C. O., & Ingram, G. P. D. (2018). Manuscript in preparation.
  6. Turiel, E. (1983). The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814–834.
  8. Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.

Published On: May 17, 2018

Gordon Ingram

Gordon Ingram

Gordon Ingram obtained his PhD in 2009 from the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied children’s reporting of their peers’ behavior. After teaching at the University of Oxford he completed a postdoc at the University of Bath, before becoming assistant professor at Bath Spa University, where he taught Evolutionary Psychology. Currently he is Associate Professor of Psychology at the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. He teaches undergraduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Cyberpsychology, and Psychology of Language, and a graduate course in Cognition and Culture. His research centers on children’s and adolescents’ everyday communication online. He supervizes several graduate students researching children’s social and moral development. 



  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for this great commentary, which brings child development into the conversation. Let me begin with an anecdote from Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart”, which can be regarded as a fictional ethnography of an African culture. The protagonist kills a man with an old rifle that obviously misfired. It is obvious to everyone that the death was a mistake and not intended. Nevertheless, it is also obvious to everyone that the protagonist must leave his village and live elsewhere. This is such a hard and fast rule that even the protagonist does not protest it.

    The point of the anecdote is to suggest that in some cases, intentions to harm don’t matter. It is only the action that matters. It is easy to see why this might be so, because a rule might be easier to enforce than allowing exceptions based on intentions, which can be difficult to infer.

    I don’t think that this necessarily contradicts the child development literature that you cite, but my reading of the anthropological literature suggests that in many cultures, especially those that are oral, even adults don’t indulge in reading the intentions of others as much as we take for granted in our cultures. I would be interested in what others with cross-cultural expertise have to say on this point.

    • Gordon Ingram says:

      David, thanks for the comment and I’m sorry I’m just getting round to answering them now. You are right that in many small-scale cultures, as in Achebe’s novel, people can still be punished for causing unintentional harm. A recent large-scale collaboration by H. Clark Barrett and colleagues (2016) showed this very clearly across a whole range of societies (see http://www.pnas.org/content/113/17/4688 ). However my argument in this commentary is that this is often misread as meaning that people in such cultures don’t pay much attention to intentions. This is not the case: like the developmental evidence, the cross-cultural evidence shows that everyone does pay attention to harmful intentions and uses them as a moral indicator – failed attempts to do harm are always seen as bad – it’s just that positive or neutral intentions are not always seen as excusing an accidentally bad outcome.

      The widespread phenomenon of witchcraft beliefs could be instructive here. In E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s magnum opus, _Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande_ he famously described how the Azande did not believe in accidents, or at least in accidental deaths (or other severe harms). Every great misfortune had to have a bad intention behind it, and the bad intention had caused the bad outcome through witchcraft. Therefore, when someone died of superficially natural but unusual causes (for example, by a rice barn suddenly collapsing while they were inside) people would blame witchcraft and start looking for the witch who had caused it. Who was suspected of the witchcraft? Two groups of people: those who came from notorious families of witches, and those who were known to harbour some kind of grudge (=> harmful intentions) against the victim. Interestingly, Zande folk psychological opinion appeared to be divided on whether the act of witchcraft was always intentionally carried out or not. Sometimes it was thought that someone could more or less unconsciously do harm to a victim as a consequence of some unresolved ill-feeling towards them, while in other accounts witches were portrayed as deliberately taking the form of birds or animals and flying through the air at night to seek out their victims.

      So that may help explain why accidental harm is not seen as so excusable in cultures like the one described by Achebe: they may not really believe in accidents at all! I am not saying that his protagonist was suspected of being a witch – as you say, it was obvious to all that he didn’t intend the death – it is more that the concept of an “accident” may be a construction of the Western tradition of science with its billiard-ball model of physics, and so on. Bringing in Stewart Guthrie’s idea of “hyperactive agency detection”, before this tradition there may not have been a clear separation between physical causes and human reasons (it always sticks in my mind that the Latin word “causa” meant both). Indeed, even in our own culture those who are in charge of a business or a sports team during some calamity that could not have been foreseen by them, let alone intended, nearly always have to pay the price of resigning. So I think it is not so much that people from other traditions do not try to read the intention of others – this is surely a human universal – as that they do not make such fine-grained distinctions as modern scientists do between psychological intentions and other forms of personal responsibility.

  • Mark Sloan says:


    Your test results appear consistent with 3 year olds understanding that others can act contrary to what everyone ‘ought’ to do prior to being able to understand that others can have a wrong idea about what ‘is’. Perhaps the components of the “rational brain” develop more slowly than the “moral brain”? (A rational brain seems required to understand that others can have wrong ideas about what ‘is’.)

    Then, progressive strengthening of the rational brain in teenage years might explain some of the oddities of human moral development. I am thinking of the peculiar shift in moral thinking exemplified by the fascination of some teenagers, usually boys, in the psychopathic, but rationalistic, philosophy of Ayn Rand. Most grow out of that phase with a bit more life experience, but some get stuck and unfortunately go into finance and politics.

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