05.10.2021 Judy Sein Kim

The function and construction of moral narratives (with Molly Crockett)


Human communication often takes the form of stories, or narratives. In this talk, I focus particularly on narratives that are used to communicate to others and to oneself about moral actions (i.e., moral narratives). Linking approaches in value-based decision making, pragmatics, and moral psychology, we introduce a theoretical framework for understanding why and how moral narratives are told. 


We define moral narratives as morally evaluative, explanatory accounts of particular moral actions, carried out by one more particular agents. By accurately representing morally relevant information about events and people, moral narratives can serve key social functions such as promoting group cohesion, cultural learning, and identity-development. Moral narratives can also be used to serve personal reputational functions, such as making one seem morally better than they actually are to others, or even to oneself. 


To study the proximate mechanisms of narrative construction, moral narratives are conceptualized as a form of decision making where narrators seek to maximize a narrative’s value. Narrators balance three distinct but interrelated goals: conveying information accurately and relevantly (informational goals); guiding audience’s inferences about moral character (reputational goals); and representing themselves as reliable narrators (presentational goals). Narrators crucially make narrative decisions by inferring their audiences’ likely perception of these goals. 


I will argue that the form that moral narratives take, as well the cognitive processes involved in their construction, are ultimately constrained by the need to meet communicative expectations (e.g., how well they answer questions under discussion). Satisfying these communicative expectations are necessary for moral narratives to serve their ultimate functions. After introducing the framework in the first half of the talk, I will present preliminary experiments that test these key elements of moral narrative construction.