Is Morality Flexible and Why Does It Matter?

Is it morally wrong for a brother and sister to make love? How about making love to a dead chicken? In studies using these dilemmas, people report that they feel wrong, even though they are often unable to articulate exactly why—a phenomenon termed “moral dumbfounding.” Responses like these have led many psychologists to conclude that morally relevant situations automatically elicit gut intuitions of right and wrong and the human capacity for moral reasoning is relegated to rationalizing these intuitions.

Certainly, some situations are morally striking enough to trigger automatic judgments of right and wrong, but it seems unlikely that this is always the case. This point is obvious when we think about how it is that people come to make immoral decisions. Some moral failures occur when temptation overcomes conscience. People recognize that an act is inconsistent with their moral values but do it anyway for pragmatic reasons or because they cannot resist powerful hedonic urges. However, other moral failures occur when people do not recognize the moral importance of their decisions in the first place.

History is replete with examples of people who seem to have ignored or failed to recognize (sometimes willfully) the full moral implications of their decisions. A recent article by Roger Forsgren about Nazi architect Albert Speer provides a remarkable description of how morality can become dangerously compartmentalized from day-to-day decision-making. Imprisoned after the war, Speer wrote:

my obsessional fixation on production and output statistics, blurred all considerations and feelings of humanity. An American historian has said of me that I loved machines more than people. He is not wrong. I realize that the sight of suffering people influenced only my emotions, but not my conduct. … I continued to be ruled by the principles of utility.

Although this is an extreme case, we believe that many of the day-to-day decisions people make are based on practical rather than moral considerations. When people grapple with questions about how to get to work or stay on their boss’s good side, it is easy to ignore the moral implications of decisions in these domains.

In a new paper published in PLOS ONE, we and our colleagues examine how the construal of actions in moral vs. non-moral terms affects judgment. We asked several hundred participants to rate the same set of actions (e.g., riding a bike, studying, eating) in different ways. Across a series of studies, we found that when people were asked to judge actions in moral terms, they did so more quickly and more extremely than when they judged the same actions in pragmatic or hedonic terms. We further found that rating the morality of actions facilitated subsequent judgments of universality—ratings of whether everybody or nobody should engage in these behaviors.

These studies suggest that the questions we ask ourselves about choices—Will this feel good? Is this pragmatic? Is this moral?—result in different answers. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has put it, “In the real world, the act of framing—the act of describing a situation and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made—is itself a moral task. It’s often the moral task.”

Jay Van Bavel is a professor of social psychology and director of the Social Perception and Evaluation Lab at New York University, and Dominic Packer is a professor of psychology and director of the Group Processes Laboratory at Lehigh University.

Category: Q&A


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