What is it about?
In a study conducted in fifteen different countries, we find that people's moral appraisals play a role in their interpretation of legal and non-legal rules (i.e., when determining whether someone's behavior violates a written rule). This effect, however, is weakened by legal expertise. Why? A two-player economic game revealed that people disregard their moral appraisals and heed the letter of the law when incentivized to coordinate their interpretation with an anonymous partner.
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Why is it important?
Previous evidence has highlighted how people abandon the "pre-conventional" deference to authority in favor of autonomous moral reasoning throughout their moral development. Yet, when engaging in legal reasoning, citizens and especially legal experts often heed the letter of the law, even when doing so undermines their moral sense. Our cross-cultural and cross-linguistic study documented a global tendency toward this “textualist” approach to legal interpretation and explained why it might prevail: Prioritizing the letter of the law over its spirit helps citizens and judges reach a shared understanding of law's scope, enabling coordination in large and heterogeneous communities.
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This page is a summary of: Coordination and expertise foster legal textualism, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2206531119.
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