I read an interesting new article about the moral attitudes of terrorists published in Nature Human Behavior and written by Sandra Baez, Eduar Herrera, Adolfo M. García, Facundo Manes, Liane Young, and Agustín Ibáñez.
The main result shows that moral judgement in terrorists is abnormally guided by outcomes rather than by the integration of intentions and outcomes. The participants were 66 incarcerated Colombian paramilitary fighters (terrorist)** and 66 matched non-criminals (control).
The experiment varied the intention (neutral vs. negative) and the outcome (neutral vs. negative) of a hypothetical scenario. The idea being that moral attitudes incorporate both the outcome and intention. Consider the text a below, describing an 'accidental harm' scenario. The intention was neutral but the outcome was negative. The second image b shows the 2 x 2 design altering intention and outcome, but changing the words in bold. Accidental Harm is in the top right, while (unsuccessful) attempted harm is in the bottom left.
After reading the four stories above, the participants rated the scenario on a Likert scale ranging from totally forbidden (1) to totally permissible (7). Below is a the average moral judgment for each scenario, separated by group (terrorist vs. control).
Terrorists judged accidental harm as less permissible (p < 0.01) and attempted harm as more permissible (p < 0.01) than non-criminals. The differences between groups for non-harm and successful attempted harm were not statistically significant. These results point to terrorist moral judgement being largely driven by outcome rather than some combination of both outcome and intention. The authors discuss the possible implications of this in the conclusion of the paper:
In legal and cognitive settings, intentions are assessed and often used to evaluate others’ actions. The capacity to represent and reason about intentions is crucial in judging whether others’ actions are right or wrong, harmless or harmful, punishable or unpunishable. However, our results reveal that terrorists judge others’ actions by focusing on the outcomes, suggesting that their moral code prioritizes ends over means. Thus, impairments in processing intentions and in integrating them with actions’ outcomes may be one of the key social cognitive factors underlying the cruel acts committed by terrorist paramilitary groups.
** The subject pool was very unique, consisting of 66 incarcerated paramilitary terrorists who participated in a collective demobilization from 2003 to 2006 as part of a Colombian statutory Justice and Peace Law. All 66 subjects declared having participated in illegal armed right-wing paramilitary groups and gave a full, voluntary deposition and confession of crimes involving terrorist acts. This unique sample is characterized by high levels of terrorism and insurgency as well as aggressive and disruptive behaviors. All participants in this group were convicted of murder, with a mean of 33 victims per subject (most of them were accountable for several massacres, with death tolls sometimes exceeding 600 victims). They had also engaged in other crimes, such as theft, kidnapping and fraud. (paraphrased from Baez et al 2017)