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Why Is Moral Dumbfounding Significant?

Moral dumbfounding is used in a variety of philosophical arguments. Dwyer (2009) argues that moral dumbfounding provides evidence for what she calls ‘The Linguistic Analogy’. Prinz (2007) argues that moral dumbfounding supports the view that emotions alone, not reasoning, determines which moral judgements humans make. This section critically evaluates both arguments. Have their proponents understood moral dumbfounding?

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What Does Moral Dumbfounding Show? A Misconstrual

Dwyer (2009, p. 294) takes the evidence for moral dumbfounding to show that

moral ‘judgments are [not] the conclusions of explicitly represented syllogisms, one or more premises of which are moral principles, that ordinary folk can articulate.’

This is a mistake. The abstract for Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy (2000) states:

‘It was hypothesized that participants’ judgments would be highly consistent with their reasoning on the moral reasoning dilemma’ [ie. reasoning concerning the morally provocative and harmfull events].

And this is what those researchers found.

Moral dumbfounding is investigated a matter of degree: some dilemmas lead to greater moral dumbfounding than others (and which dilemmas lead to more dumbfounding varies from place to place, as McHugh, Zhang, Karnatak, Lamba, & Khokhlova (2023) show).[1]

What Does Moral Dumbfounding Truly Show?

The existence of moral dumbfounding shows that some moral intuitions (and thus some moral judgements) are not consequences of reasoning from known principles.

The existence of moral dumbfounding does not show that no moral judgements are consequences of reasoning from known principles. Indeed, reflection on moral disengagement suggests that this is false.

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moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from conduct. To illustrate, an executioner may avoid self-sanctioning for killing by reframing the role they play as ‘babysitting’ (Bandura, 2002, p. 103). Bandura (2002, p. 111) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’
moral dumbfounding : ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of an [ethical] judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt et al., 2000, p. 1). As McHugh, McGann, Igou, & Kinsella (2017) note, subsequent researchers have given different definitions of moral dumbfounding so that ‘there is [currently] no single, agreed definition of moral dumbfounding.’ I adopt the original authors’ definition, as should you unless there are good reasons to depart from it.
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, a person’s intuitions are the claims they take to be true independently of whether those claims are justified inferentially. And a person’s moral intuitions are simply those of their intuitions that concern ethical matters.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101–119.
Dwyer, S. (2009). Moral Dumbfounding and the Linguistic Analogy: Methodological Implications for the Study of Moral Judgment. Mind & Language, 24(3), 274–296.
Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. (2008). Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology, Vol 2: The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity (pp. 181–217). Cambridge, Mass: MIT press.
Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.
McHugh, C., McGann, M., Igou, E. R., & Kinsella, E. L. (2017). Searching for Moral Dumbfounding: Identifying Measurable Indicators of Moral Dumbfounding. Collabra: Psychology, 3(1), 23.
McHugh, C., Zhang, R., Karnatak, T., Lamba, N., & Khokhlova, O. (2023). Just wrong? Or just WEIRD? Investigating the prevalence of moral dumbfounding in non-Western samples. Memory & Cognition, 51(5), 1043–1060.
Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence and the future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(4), 143–152.
Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roedder, E., & Harman, G. (2010). Linguistics and moral theory. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 273–296). Oxford: OUP.
Royzman, E. B., Kim, K., & Leeman, R. F. (2015). The curious tale of julie and mark: Unraveling the moral dumbfounding effect. Judgment & Decision Making, 10(4).
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.


  1. Not everyone would agree. Royzman, Kim, & Leeman (2015) instead present a set of criteria which must be met for a ‘definitionally pristine bout of’ moral dumbfounding. But as they do not find evidence for such things, it is unclear why we should abandon Haidt et al. (2000)’s approach of comparing dilemmas to find varying degrees of moral dumbfounding. ↩︎