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Inferring Intentions from Consequences: How Moral Judgments Shape Citizen Perceptions of Wartime Conduct

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2020

Jonathan A. Chu
Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA, e-mail:, Twitter:@whoisjonchu
Marcus Holmes
William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA, e-mail: Twitter:@Prof_MHolmes
David Traven
Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice, California State University, Fullerton, CA, USA, e-mail: Twitter:@DavidTraven1


How people interpret the intentions of others is fundamental to politics. This article examines intention understanding in the domain of how citizens evaluate wartime conduct. Drawing on recent work in moral psychology, it argues that people are more likely to attribute intentionality to wartime actions that produce morally bad consequences than otherwise identical actions that produce morally good consequences. We test this theory with two vignette-based survey experiments. Our results show that this hypothesis holds in a variety of contexts relating to civilian casualties and the destruction of heritage sites during war. By unlocking the moral psychology of intention understanding, this article contributes to the field of political psychology in general, and more specifically to theoretical debates in International Relations (IR) about public opinion on just war doctrine.

Short Report
© The Experimental Research Section of the American Political Science Association 2020

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Authors contributed equally to this project. The order of names is alphabetical. The data for this project were collected through the Social Science Research Methods Center (SSRMC) at William & Mary and with the support of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. IRB approval from: California State University, Fullerton (HSR-18-19-221); University of Pennsylvania (831883); William & Mary (PHSC-2018-10-06-13168-mcholmes). The data, code, and any additional materials required to replicate all analyses in this article are available at the Journal of Experimental Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network at


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