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Moral Judgments in Russian Culture: Universality and Cultural Specificity

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Abstract Individuals often deliver rapid, automatic judgments of right and wrong, suggesting that there is an implicit system of knowledge that may guide our moral judgments. Some authors have argued that the principles guiding this system are universal, part of our human endowment. Tests of this hypothesis require rich cross-cultural evidence which is presently limited. Here we extend the current cross-cultural evidence by testing Russian subjects. We focus on three psychological distinctions concerning the nature of permissible harm that, thus far, show a fair degree of uniformity among several English-speaking countries (USA, UK, Canada): (1) action-based harms are worse than omission-based harms; (2) means-based harms are worse than side-effects; and (3) contact-based harms are worse than non-contact-based harms. Overall, Russian subjects’ judgments were mediated by these three distinctions. There were, however, some notable cross-cultural differences: in contrast with the English-speaking countries, Russian subjects tended to avoid extreme judgments favoring the middle of the scale anchored at permissible; however, when they used the extremes, they were more likely to judge cases as forbidden, and rarely as obligatory. We discuss these results in light of the role of biological constraints on cross-cultural variation.


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