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The Moral Behavior is not Necessarily so Moral at All

Posted by christianmunthe on 28 Aug 2013 at 21:30 GMT

As a moral philosopher with a strong interest in moral psychology and science, this is a very interesting article. Alas it suffers from a lack of theoretical grounding in ethical theory and a resulting lack of precision, making claimed inferences seem more supported than they in fact are. There are also other weaknesses having to do not with empirical methodology, but the conceptual analysis and logic applied when inferring the conclusion.

It is perhaps not very surprising that people who think about stuff that they closely associated with moral values or qualities make the engage with moral values and qualities also in practical thinking about decision making and actual action. However, it is a more bold idea that people behave (reportingly or actually) more morally by such triggers, especially if a particular trigger like thinking about science would have such an effect to a greater extent than thinking about other things that one associates strongly with moral values and qualities. It is to me doubtful, however, whether or not the present studies provide any evidence any of the latter claims.

To argue this point, we need to make more precise than the authors what "moral behavior" may mean. It may mean that people act more morally right as an effect of the trigger. Since moral norms are normative and not descriptive and also contested, however, this would be rather difficult to demonstrate using the methods of empirical science. It may instead mean "moral behavior by one's own lights"; i.e. people tend to act more morally according to norms they themselves endorse as a result of the trigger. Alternatively, it may be something similar, but relating to values or qualities or norms signaled by the trigger (=thinking about science). Unfortunately, the study does not seem to support these latter claims either, in spite of what the authors claim. The only thing demonstrated is that people seem more likely to enforce certain norms (which they may embrace or associate with the trigger), but this is not the same as acting in accordance with the same norms - that is, not the same as "moral behavior" as defined by said norms. Rather, what is demonstrated seems to be an increased tendency to resenting or retributive behavior with a perceived norm-breach as a trigger. But such behavior, as is elementary in ethical theory and moral philosophy, may very well be wrong or impermissible according to the norms in question.

That is, what is possibly demonstrated in the studies is that when people think about something that they strongly associate with certain moral norms or values, they become more likely to resent or openly rebut behavior perceived to breach such norms or values, or possibly other norms/values that they embrace. What is more, it has not been demonstrated that this effect is any more present for "thinking about science" than thinking about something else strongly associated with moral values or qualities.

No competing interests declared.

RE: The Moral Behavior is not Necessarily so Moral at All

christinema replied to christianmunthe on 30 Aug 2013 at 16:30 GMT

I appreciate these insights and highlighted nuances from moral philosophy, and agree that it may be useful to make the distinction between enforcing moral norms and actually committing moral behaviors.
In regard to the more general critique that moral norms cannot be adequately studied via methods of empirical science because they are contested and therefore, any references to moral behavior must be interpreted as moral behavior by one's own light--I acknowledge that there are individual, historical, and cultural-level variations in moral norms, but I also contend that there are certain widely-accepted "moral foundations" (e.g., Haidt et al.) that are tapped in the moral measures used in our studies (e.g., concerns about harm and care are common moral domains across cultures).
In relation to the assertion that the studies only demonstrate an increased tendency to resenting or retributive behavior rather than actual increased moral behavior, I acknowledge that while this might be a limitation to studies 1 and 2, studies 3 and 4 more directly address actual behavior. Study 3 involves behavioral intentions, and study 4 directly examines a specific moral behavior--economic exploitation in a dictator game.
Finally, in relation to the idea that thinking about science something else strongly associated with moral values may also trigger moral behaviors--I agree that science is not the only construct that may have moralizing effects. Indeed, the idea that science in itself is associated with moral norms is one of the findings central to the present work. One potential area for future research is to elucidate what these other constructs are and the relative degree to which they lead to moral behavior.

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: The Moral Behavior is not Necessarily so Moral at All

christianmunthe replied to christinema on 01 Sep 2013 at 12:08 GMT

Thank you for this response, which made important clarifications in its latter half, which I accept and thus will not comment on further. However, I am troubled by the response re. my claim that the data presented by the authors cannot establish a link between the psychological fact that a person thinks about something that he/she associates with embraced moral values/qualities (the trigger) and an alleged normative ethical fact that this person acts more morally right or permissible, alternatively make more adequate judgement on what is in fact morally right or permissible. My simple objection to that possible implication of formulations in the article was that such a claim needs to assume a specific idea of what is morally right or permissible as true, in spite of the fact that there is a multitude of widely different and mutually incompatible such ideas formulated in normative ethics as rationalising views held by people and cultures throughout the world and history, of which only one (if any) can be true. I expected a mere nod in response to this followed by an explanation that such a proposition was not what the authors aimed at expressing.

However, the reference to the possibility of subsuming such a multitude of normative ethical ideas under a vague generic descriptor or category that captures what is similar between such ideas (e.g. that of Haidt et al, but also classics like the moral anthropological taxonomy of Westermarck and a lot of similar later works in descriptive ethics, which are all fine to the extent that they fit empirical facts and plausible interpretations) seems here to be employed to claim that such a similarity can be used to deduce the presence of the normative ethical quality of rightness or permissibility; not only the presence of similarities between otherwise competing moral systems). This, however, ignores the fact that the generic features that are similar between different moral systems are handled differently by these same systems, and none of these systems imply that the generic features as such are right- or permisssibility-making characteristics (they are so only if they are related to moral appraisal exactly in the way that some particular system embraces as a right- or permissibility-making relation, but then all of the other systems will be excluded). To be more specific: If the mutually incompatible normative ethical ideas a, b, and c can be described as similar in some respect by a theory, T, and this similarity then be used to formulate yet another normative ethical theory, d, the claim that d is a correct normative ethical theory will be incompatible with each of a, b, and c (since d is compatible with each one of them while they are, in turn, mutually incompatible).

For the results of the studies at hand, this implies that even if one may plausibly infer that the persons exposed to the trigger engage in a particular way with something that belongs to the realm of human morality and moral thinking or decision making (I did not deny that in my original comment), it does not follow that this particular way of doing so is the morally right or permissible way of doing that. One could, if time and resources allowed, try to construct a sort of dominance argument to that effect, if it could be shown that the behavior exhibited would be morally right/permissible according to every more specific normative ethical theory applicable to the circumstances described in the vignettes and decision situations used in the experiments. That, however, would be a rather tall order and even if successful open to the objection that new normative ethical ideas can be invented indefinitely. At best, what can be supported is the claim that the people in the experiments behave according to (or in relation to, in case of the resentment response) some normative ethical idea that fits within the generic classification/description of Haidt et al or other similar taxonomies), but this will not support the conclusion that said behaviour is or engages with what is in fact morally right or permissible.

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: RE: The Moral Behavior is not Necessarily so Moral at All

christinema replied to christianmunthe on 01 Sep 2013 at 17:29 GMT

As acknowledged in my original response, I agree that is important variation in moral norms, ideas, and ethics across time and cultures. The goal of the present research was not to subsume the multitude of normative ethical ideas that exist, but rather, demonstrate the moralizing effects of science across a variety (albeit a limited number) of situations. As mentioned in the General Discussion, one limitation of the present studies is that it examined morality primarily in the domains of harm/care (i.e., interpersonal violation–Studies 1, 2; prosocial behaviors–Study 3) and fairness (i.e., economic exploitation–Study 4), but that other moral concerns exist. Thus, the question of what boundary conditions exist in the link between science and morality remains an empirical issue that future research can more closely examine.

No competing interests declared.