The moral landscape of war: A registered report testing how the war context shapes morality’s constraints on default representations of possibility

H.M. Watkins*, M.J. Brandt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Mental representations of possibility in everyday contexts incorporate descriptive and prescriptive norms. People intuitively think that Mr X cannot perform an immoral action; even when upon deliberation they realise that the immoral action is in fact possible (Phillips & Cushman, 2017) . We replicate this “moral-possibility constraint”, providing further support for the notion that default representations of possibility are - at first pass - limited to moral alternatives.We also test how context affects representations of possibility by asking whether the same findings hold in a war context. This context has different prescriptive norms (e.g., it is permissible to kill combatants, but not non-combatants), and we use Phillips and Cushman’s (2017) reaction-time paradigm to test whether these prescriptive norms shape people’s representations of what is possible in war. We find that the moral-possibility constraint is sensitive to variation in degree of immorality (e.g., killing a person vs. torturing a child); howeverthe war context did not influence the constraint in the way we expected. The results further advance our understanding of the relationship between morality and domain-general cognition, and provide insight into the moral landscape of war.

Keywords: morality, war, intuition, moral psychology

Original languageEnglish
Article number103843
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2019




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