Moral Shifting: Social Perception, Dehumanization, and The Plasticity of Moral Judgments About Violence

Aliza Luft, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles
Event Date & Time
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This event was held on March 28, 2022. View the Zoom recording of this event online.

Assistant Professor Aliza Luft will present, "Moral Shifting: Social Perception, Dehumanization, and The Plasticity of Moral Judgments About Violence."

About the Talk

This talk is about dehumanization and how people can shift their judgments of violent actions from morally bad to morally neutral by shifting their judgments of their victims. Crucially, however, and through qualitative analysis of interviews with Hutu who participated in the Rwandan genocide bolstered by ethnographic fieldwork, secondary reports, and oral testimonies of survivors and rescuers, I find that dehumanization did not cause Hutu to harm Tutsi but rather emerged as a result of ongoing participation in violence. This finding challenges existing research and common assumptions that dehumanization is necessary for people to kill. Rather, it suggests that people can act in ways that counter their moral values, including actions that are violent, but through ongoing participation in such actions, these values can change. Moreover, one mechanism that facilitates such change is a change in judgments of victims. Judgments of actions and judgments of people go hand-in-hand.

About the Speaker

Professor Luft's research focuses on the causes and consequences of violence, moral judgment and decision-making, and how social and behavioral boundaries are constituted and change.

These interests are reflected in her current book project as well as her published papers and ongoing research. First, she studies wartime defection, or how people shift stances from support for state violence to resistance and saving behaviors within the same violent episode. Second, she investigates the relationship between social boundaries and political behaviors, with a specific interest in how racial, ethnic, and religious cleavages inform and are transformed by extreme violence such as genocide. Third, she analyzes the relationship between cultural cognition and social perception at the micro-level of decision-making on violence. Here, she focuses on how timing influences cognitive adaptation to violence and how shifts in social perception mediate this process. To view her publications, or learn more about her book, please visit

The Sociology Workshop Series

The Sociology Workshop Series provides a forum for faculty and students to present work and work in progress across a wide range of substantive areas, theoretical perspectives, and research methodologies.

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