Research highlight

The moral judgment of terrorists

Nature Human Behaviour

May 27, 2017

Terrorist moral judgments are guided by an abnormal overreliance on outcomes, suggests a paper published online this week in Nature Human Behaviour.

Terrorist acts are widely viewed by normal society as being morally impermissible, but terrorists justify their acts by the logic that the ends justify the means. However, how terrorists perceive this trade-off and make moral judgments is not fully understood. Typical adult moral judgment depends on a person’s ability to represent and integrate information about the intentions and consequences of actions. In many cases, moral judgment is determined primarily by intention; however, when intention and outcome are in conflict, moral judgments are normally made by considering both factors.

In this study, Sandra Baez and colleagues conducted a battery of cognitive and psychological tests on 66 Colombian right-wing paramilitaries who were imprisoned for committing terrorist acts (all were convicted of murder, with a mean of 33 victims per subject), 66 sociodemographically matched non-criminals (controls) and 13 incarcerated murderers. The tests included assessments of moral cognition, IQ, executive functioning, aggressive behaviour, and emotion recognition. They find that terrorists exhibit higher levels of aggression and lower levels of emotion recognition than non-criminals, but that a difference in moral cognition most strongly distinguishes terrorists from the other groups. The authors find that terrorists, when judging whether the actions of others are morally permissible, primarily focus on outcomes, rather than integrating both intentions and outcomes like the controls do. This result, the authors note, suggests that a terrorist’s moral code prioritizes ends over means.

They conclude that this pattern of skewed moral judgment is an important component of the terrorist profile, but further research is needed to understand its origins and changes over time.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0118

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