Psychological research helps explain why conflicts are so intractable when morality is involved.
JULIE BECK | DEC 14, 2016
Morality is “like the temple on the hill of human nature,” writes the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “It is our most sacred attribute.” People cherish this sacred sense of right and wrong, put it on a pedestal and surround it with spears, to defend it against attacks. The nearness and dearness of people’s morals means that conflict becomes particularly entrenched when morality gets involved—neither side wants to yield sacred ground.
It doesn’t help that most people think they are more virtuous than others. Many studies over the years have found what’s called a “better-than-average” effect—that when asked to compare themselves to the average person, most people will say they’re smarter, friendlier, more competent, etc. A recent study found that this effect is much more extreme for moral traits like honesty and trustworthiness.
“Everyone viewed themselves as though they were at the top of the scale,” says Ben Tappin, a graduate student in psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an author of the study. The study went on to say that this makes people’s self-inflated morality more irrational than their bumped-up views of their intelligence, or friendliness. In the latter two realms, there was more variability—one person might think they were a little smarter than average, another might think they were a genius, another might think they were a little below average.
“Most people consider themselves paragons of virtue; yet few individuals perceive this abundance of virtue in others,” Tappin and his co-author write in the study. Perhaps, they posit, this could be because it’s evolutionarily advantageous not to trust someone you don’t know—better to assume they wouldn’t act as morally as you would, to protect yourself.
Groups have their own sense of moral superiority. “I’m quite confident that we walk around all the time with a feeling that our group is morally superior to the other group,” says Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University. “We hate them. It’s important that we show constantly how much better our side is, and anything the other side does, we will take in the worst possible light.”
Moral superiority and moral tribalism were on full display in the recent U.S. presidential election. Who someone was going to vote for was often cast as a moral decision. Donald Trump did his best to make Hillary Clinton seem like an immoral choice, repeatedly calling her a liar and “Crooked Hillary.” The Democrats called Trump out on his many lies, but also demonized the people planning to vote for him, as in Clinton’s famous dismissal of them as a “basket of deplorables.” Many times, Clinton’s message seemed to be not only “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” but “if you’re not with us, you’re a bad person.” Michelle Obama, in a powerful speech that was as much arguing against Trump as it was arguing for Clinton, summed up the campaign: “This isn’t about politics,” she said. “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong.”
Part of why it’s easy for anyone to see themselves, or the groups they belong to, as super moral is because morality itself is a vague concept. “You can have one person, for instance, who cares very deeply for their friends and family and would go to the ends of the earth for these people,” Tappin says. “And yet they don’t, say, give a dime to foreign charity. And then you’ve got another person who spends their entire life donating money overseas, yet in their interpersonal life, perhaps they don’t treat their family members very well. In those cases, how do you compare who’s more moral? It seems quite impossible to judge and it’s just at the mercy of people’s preferences.”
Haidt’s work identifies six different moral metrics—liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, care, and purity. Different groups and cultures prefer to emphasize these domains to different degrees. For example, people in Eastern countries tend to emphasize purity and loyalty more than people in Western countries. People who live in countries where there has historically been higher prevalence of disease also place a higher value on purity, as well as loyalty and authority. In the United States, liberals tend to focus mostly on care, fairness, and liberty, while conservatives generally emphasize all six domains. Other research shows that people rate the moral values a group holds as the most important characteristic affecting whether they’re proud to be a member of the group, or more likely to distance themselves from it. Read the story>