It is no secret that morals vary from one culture to another. Behaviors that are acceptable in one society may bring condemnation in another. In spite of these differences, certain universals seem self-evident. Intent, for example, weighs into moral judgments: If a transgression is an accident, we often hand out a reduced punishment. Similarly, if the offender had a legitimate reason to do what he or she did, we take that into account, too.

Now, for the first time, a team of anthropologists has made a detailed cross-cultural study of the degree to which different societies consider intent and mitigating circumstances when forming moral judgments. The study, published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, examined the judgments of more than 300 people in eight traditional, nonindustrial societies and two Western societies. Although intent and mitigating circumstances were relevant in all cases, the amount of emphasis placed on them varied widely.

In all societies, the most severe transgressions draw the harshest judgments, but cultures differ on whether or not intent is weighed heavily in such crimes. One scenario, for example, asked respondents to imagine that someone had poisoned a communal well, harming dozens of villagers. In many nonindustrial societies, this was seen as the most severe wrongdoing—and yet intent seemed to matter very little. The very act of poisoning the well “was judged to be so bad that, whether it was on purpose or accidental, it ‘maxed out’ the badness judgments,” explains lead author H. Clark Barrett of the University of California, Los Angeles. “They accepted that it was accidental but said it's your responsibility to be vigilant in cases that cause that degree of harm.”

The findings also suggest that people in industrial societies are more likely in general than those in traditional societies to consider intent. This, Barrett says, may reflect the fact that people raised in the West are immersed in complex sets of rules; judges, juries and law books are just the tip of the moral iceberg. “In small-scale societies, judgment may be equally sophisticated, but it isn't codified in these elaborate systems,” he notes. “In some of these societies, people argue about moral matters for just as long as they do in any court in the U.S.”

The authors suggest this line of work could help us navigate cultural disagreements over wrongdoing. Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the City University of New York, agrees. We may be tempted to see our own moral opinions as superior—but that is an illusion of perspective, he says, adding that this kind of cross-cultural research can be a useful “exercise in humility.