'Moral realism' may lead to better moral behavior

Getting people to think about morality as a matter of objective facts rather than subjective preferences may lead to improved moral behavior, Liane Young, Boston College, psychology professor and researcher reports in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Credit: Lee Pellegrini

Getting people to think about morality as a matter of objective facts rather than subjective preferences may lead to improved moral behavior, Boston College researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

In two experiments, one conducted in-person and the other online, participants were primed to consider a belief in either moral realism (the notion that morals are like facts) or moral antirealism (the belief that morals reflect people's preferences) during a solicitation for a charitable donation. In both experiments, those primed with moral realism pledged to give more money to the charity than those primed with antirealism or those not primed at all.

"There is significant debate about whether morals are processed more like objective facts, like mathematical truths, or more like subjective preferences similar to whether vanilla or chocolate tastes better," said lead researcher Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College. "We wanted to explore the impact of these different meta-ethical views on actual behavior."

Ideas have previously been advanced on the subject, but Young and her former research assistant A.J. Durwin, now a law student at Hofstra University, are the first to directly investigate the question.

In one experiment, a street canvasser attempted to solicit donations from passersby for a charity that aids impoverished children. Participants in one set were asked a leading question to prime a belief in moral realism: "Do you agree that some things are just morally right or wrong, good or bad, wherever you happen to be from in the world?" Those in a second set were asked a question to prime belief in moral antirealism: "Do you agree that our morals and values are shaped by our culture and upbringing, so there are no absolute right answers to any moral questions?" Participants in a control set were not asked any priming question.

In this experiment, participants primed with realism were twice as likely to be donors, compared to those primed with antirealism or not primed at all.

A second experiment, conducted online, yielded similar results. Participants asked to donate money to a charity of their choice who were primed with realism reported being willing to give more than those primed with antirealism or not primed at all.

"Priming participants to consider the notion that morals are like facts increased decisions to donate in both experiments, revealing the potential impact of meta-ethical views on everyday decision-making," said Young. "Simply asking participants to consider moral values, as we did with the antirealism prime, did not produce an effect," she said, "so priming morality in general may not necessarily lead to better behavior. Considering the existence of non-negotiable moral facts may have raised the stakes and motivated participants to behave better."

Since "real" moral stakes may be accompanied by "real" consequences —whether good (e.g., helping others, enhanced self-esteem) or bad (e.g., retribution), priming a belief in moral realism may in fact prompt people to behave better, in line with their existing moral beliefs, the researchers say.

The researchers note that priming a belief in moral realism may enhance under certain conditions—such as when the right thing to do is relatively unambiguous (e.g., it is good to be generous). A different outcome could be possible when subjects are faced with more controversial moral issues, they say.

Liane Young's research frequently focuses on the psychology and neuroscience of moral judgment and behavior. In 2012, she was awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and was named a Dana Neuroscience Scholar by the Dana Foundation, which also awarded her a three-year grant to support her study of brain activity and moral decision-making in individuals with autism, a project that will provide a valuable research opportunity for BC undergraduates. In addition, she received the 2011 Early Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Social Neuroscience from the Society for Social Neuroscience, among other honors.

Her research on attributions of responsibility to groups (e.g., corporations) versus members of groups was published in the journal Psychological Science in 2012; she is also co-author of a study of moral judgments in adults with autism that was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information: The study, "Moral Realism as Moral Motivation: The Impact of Meta-Ethics on Everyday Decision-Making," was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. It appears in the March 2013 print edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and is available online at dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.11.013.

Related Stories

Men, women give to charity differently, says new research

Dec 18, 2008

To whom would you rather give money: a needy person in your neighborhood or a needy person in a foreign country? According to new research by Texas A&M University marketing professor Karen Winterich and colleagues, if you're ...

Moral dilemma scenarios prone to biases

Dec 14, 2009

Picture the following hypothetical scenario: A trolley is headed toward five helpless victims. The trolley can be redirected so that only one person's life is at stake. Psychologists and philosophers have been using moral ...

Recommended for you

Better memory at ideal temperature

57 seconds ago

People's working memory functions better if they are working in an ambient temperature where they feel most comfortable. That is what Leiden psychologists Lorenza Colzato and Roberta Sellaro conclude after having conducted ...

New simulator for older drivers is put to the test

2 hours ago

University of Adelaide researchers are hoping that a new computer-based driving simulation will help lead to accurate, low-cost testing of older drivers' ability to stay safe on the roads.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Bookbinder
not rated yet Jan 29, 2013
And why is realism equated with absolutism? Seems a bit skewed.
jwilcos
not rated yet Jan 29, 2013
There is a big hole in the study (if it is described correctly here). The realism question was "are SOME things just right or wrong". The antirealism question was "no right or wrong to ANY moral question". It should have been "no right or wrong to SOME moral questions".

This is clearly meant to bias against antirealism question by making it very unreasonable.

Templeton Foundation funding should raise a red flag right away, in any case.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2013
They're asking whether morals are objective or subjective.

I've yet to find a convinging argument that you can objectively derive moral rules - there's no atom of justice or molecule of mercy - without invoking some sort of higher authority like God.

But the conclusions they make are pretty obvious: if you suggest to a person that moral rules are objective, you're basically telling them to stick to the rules. When you present them with a sitiation like a charity, where they believe they're morally obliged to make a contribution, they will do so because you just told them to obey the rules.

Which is ironic, since it's their subjective belief that they are morally obliged to make the contribution. That's also the reason why this "moral realism" is a dangerous tool.

Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2013
The difference is, that a person who considers morals subjective may be less inclined to act morally and follow moral authorities.

But a people or a person who is convinced that morals are objective is in danger of adopting morals that approbate truly atrocious acts, and feeling compelled to follow through with them.

Like burning witches, or Jews.

Though let not the irony escape you, that if you consider morals to be subjective, what will be your reason to condemn those kind of acts but subjective?
zaxxon451
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2013
They're asking whether morals are objective or subjective.

I've yet to find a convinging argument that you can objectively derive moral rules - there's no atom of justice or molecule of mercy - without invoking some sort of higher authority like God.



I disagree, my morality has its foundation in empathy, nothing more, nothing less.
Eikka
2.7 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2013
I disagree, my morality has its foundation in empathy, nothing more, nothing less.


But what is this empathy, and how do you use it to come up with specific moral rules?

It could be that your empathy is simply the result of your moral beliefs, which causes you to feel it for some person in some situation and not for others, which you then mistakenly use to justify that feeling and arrive at a circular argument: I feel this way because it is the right thing to do.
zaxxon451
4 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2013

But what is this empathy, and how do you use it to come up with specific moral rules?

It could be that your empathy is simply the result of your moral beliefs, which causes you to feel it for some person in some situation and not for others, which you then mistakenly use to justify that feeling and arrive at a circular argument: I feel this way because it is the right thing to do.


Good question, but I tend to believe that empathy is something that we are either born with or without. I don't really think that it can be learned.

Specific moral rules based in empathy would basically just be variations of the Golden Rule.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2013

Good question, but I tend to believe that empathy is something that we are either born with or without. I don't really think that it can be learned.


That implies you use this definition of empathy: "Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being."

Specific moral rules based in empathy would basically just be variations of the Golden Rule.


The capacity to reconize emotions doesn't mean that you necessarily act in any specific way towards people. I don't see how you can logically connect empathy with the golden rule, which simply states that you should treat others as you'd prefer to be treated yourself.

Or as in Kant's kategorical imperative, always act in ways that you would see become the rule rather than the exception.
Jo01
1 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2013
It's the other way around: moral realism is that morals are culturally relative, non realism is that moral are absolute.

J.
MandoZink
not rated yet Feb 02, 2013
Good question, but I tend to believe that empathy is something that we are either born with or without. I don't really think that it can be learned.

I cannot be certain, but I tend to think otherwise. I feel that the multitude of kind and thoughtful people I have known have made the benefits of being empathetic and altruistic quite apparent to me. It compels me to do likewise.

A cartoon strip I read as a child had a quote by Mammy Yokum which I will always remember:
"Good is better that evil 'cause it's nicer!"

I like to think it's something you CAN learn from others.
Jaeherys
not rated yet Feb 08, 2013
The question of morals and ethics is something I could never come to terms with in philosophy. There almost certainly has to be a biological reason for the foundations of how we define our morals today, there's no other way. I personally think empathy/altruism is at the heart of it and therefore the evolution of mirror neurons may be important. Just like everything biological about us, genetics would control how "moral" you start out to be. We each have a baseline which may go up or down depending on the environment you grow up in where perhaps a "good" side of you is nurtured or the "bad" side is (obviously that is very simplified considering the biochemical and (epi)gentic variations would be enormous).

Now I know philosophers will pick apart what I've just said because I haven't defined or abstracted anything but the point still remains: given a change in our innate morality, to a norm that killing the old and sick is ok, would we define that as morally reasonable?
Jaeherys
not rated yet Feb 08, 2013
I think the answer to that is yes for a few reasons:

A) we define our philosophies not just on logical arguments but logical arguments based upon how cultures and people behave

B) if you think a specific way, your philosophies will reflect your way of thinking, i.e. psychopath vs. regular person

C) our behaviour and therefore behavioural philosophies are ultimately determined/influenced by our genetics environment

This leads to the definition of good and bad which I would propose would be something along the lines of a subjective truth: what is good is what nearly all can do and not feel majorly negative emotions where a bad action is just the opposite.

I think this would fit nicely into the basics of morality and present a somewhat true aspect of how we have behaved over the years and how our morals have evolved.

But I guess this begs the question, if our morals have "improved" over time, is there an objective goal or moral truth at the end?
zaxxon451
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2013

That implies you use this definition of empathy: "Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being."


My definition of Empathy isn't limited to recognition, although that would be a major part. It would also include the capacity to internalize another individual's emotional state by imagining our own experience of the other individual's emotion.

In any case, to me, the logical connection to moral values would be the understanding that it could easily be me in the place of the one experiencing the emotion. And were that to be the case, I might need someone to alleviate my suffering (in the case of a specific emotion).

Aside from a logical connection, emotions based on life experience could also compel me to act based on my understanding of others' emotional states.