Psychology of morality

Morality is a part of everyday life and personal experience. It is also, of course, the subject of a large field of philosophy — philosophical ethics. What principles should I follow in action? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I owe to other people in a range of circumstances? 

We can also study moral thinking and action from the point of view of empirical psychology. Several areas of method and theory have been developed in psychology for the study of moral reasoning and behavior, including cognitive studies of moral thinking, social-psychological studies of the influence of external social factors on moral behavior, evolutionary studies of the evolutionary development of moral emotions, and ethnomethodological studies of “morality in interaction”.

So it is worth asking how much we can learn about real everyday moral behavior from the empirical research psychologists have done on these questions to date. What insights can we gain from empirical research into the question, “why do people behave as they do in ‘morally’ salient circumstances”? And of particular interest — are there findings that are useful for understanding the behavior of “ordinary people” in times of catastrophe?

Naomi Ellemers, Jojanneke van der Toorn, Yavor Paunov, and Thed van Leeuwen’s “The Psychology of Morality: A Review and Analysis of Empirical Studies Published From 1940 Through 2017” (link) provides a large literature review of research in the psychology of morality since 1940. Based on content analysis of almost 1,300 research articles published since 1996, they have classified research topics and empirical methods into a small number of categories. Here is a cluster graph of their analysis.

Their analysis permits them to categorize the field of moral psychology around several groups of research questions and empirical approaches.

Research questions: The authors find that the roughly 2,000 articles considered permit identification of five large areas of research: moral reasoning; moral judgments; moral behavior; moral emotions; and moral self-views. These categories complement each other, in the sense that findings in one area can serve to explain findings in another area.

Empirical approaches and measures: The authors find several fairly distinctive empirical approaches to problems in moral psychology. Most of these approaches primarily make use of self-reports and questionnaires by subjects in response to morally relevant questions. Topics include —

  • hypothetical moral dilemmas
  • lists of traits or behaviors,
  • endorsement of abstract moral rules, and
  • position on specific moral issues (Table 1).

The bulk of these studies rely on correlational analysis. Some of the research papers reviewed make use of controlled experiments in which a set of controlled laboratory circumstances or a series of questions are presented to the subject, and the researcher hopes to discover causal relationships based on variations in behavior resulting from changing experimental conditions. (It is striking that neither of the most famous experiments on moral behavior are mentioned or placed within the conceptual structure of the authors’ findings: the Milgram experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.)

Ellemers et al further differentiate studies of morality according to the level of mechanism that is the primary object of investigation: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup mechanisms. Here is their brief summary of these levels of mechanisms:

(a) research on intrapersonal mechanisms, which studies how a single individual considers, evaluates, or makes decisions about rules, objects, situations, and courses of action; (b) research on interpersonal mechanisms, which examines how individuals perceive, evaluate, and interact with other individuals; (c) research on intragroup mechanisms, investigating how people perceive, evaluate, and respond to norms or behaviors displayed by other members of the same group, work or sports team, religious community, or organization; and (d) research on intergroup mechanisms, focusing on how people perceive, evaluate, and interact with members of different cultural, ethnic, or national groups. (342)

Here is their tabulation of “number of publications” classified by mechanism and research theme.

“Intrapersonal” mechanisms are the predominant object of research in all research areas except “Moral judgments”, and “Intragroup” mechanisms are least frequently examined across the board.

The authors identify three “seminal publications” in the field of the psychology of morality: Haidt 2001, Greene et al. 2001, and Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway 2003. They also provide the top three seminal publications for each research area. These are selected based on the total number of citation each article received. 

This article succeeds in providing an abstract map of topics, methods, and levels of analysis across a reasonably comprehensive set of research articles published between 1960 and 2017. The extensive list of references the authors provide is a course in itself on the current state of empirical moral psychology. (Interested readers will also find much relevant discussion in Hellemers’ monograph, Morality and the Regulation of Social Behavior: Groups as Moral Anchors.)

Two other articles are worth considering on the question of how we should go about trying to understand “human morality and moral behavior” using empirical methods.

Kristen Monroe’s “Cracking the Code of Genocide: The Moral Psychology of Rescuers, Bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust” (link) is particularly interesting in connection with the problem of understanding how “ordinary people” can commit evil actions. Her article provides both a useful survey of a large literature of social-psychology studies of individual genocidal behavior, and her own original research based on close analysis of extensive interviews with genociders, bystanders, and rescuers. Especially important among the sources included in Monroe’s literature review is The Courage to Care (Rittener, C., & Myers, S. (1986)), which provides a large collection of Holocaust-era survivor interviews from each category. Monroe’s 2012 monograph Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice goes into more extensive detail on the main findings of “Cracking the Code of Genocide” concerning what we can learn from interviews with participants about the nature of moral conduct.

Most interesting is Monroe’s own work in which she performs detailed analyses of 100 interviews in order to identify underlying themes and psychological factors. She uses “narrative interpretive analytic methodology” (706) to sort out factors of psychological importance. Monroe’s analysis finds that there are distinctive differences in self-images, worldview, and cognitive classifications (700) across these three groups of participants.

A narrative interpretive analysis of in-depth interviews with bystanders, Nazis, and rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust reveals the intricate but critical importance of psychological factors in explaining behavior during genocides…. Bystanders see themselves as passive people, lacking in control and low in efficacy. The Nazi self-image is as victims who need to protect themselves and their community. Rescuers consider themselves connected to all human beings through bonds of a common humanity. The rescuers’ idealized cognitive model of what it means to be a human being is far more expansive and inclusive than the model employed by bystanders or Nazis. (700)

She offers six major findings:

  1. Self-image is the central psychological variable
  2. Identity constrains choice for all individuals
  3. Character and self-image are not all. A critical ethical aspect of identity is relational
  4. The ethical importance of values works through the fashion in which values are integrated into the speaker’s sense of self and worldview
  5. Personal suffering, in the form of past trauma, heightens awareness of the plight of others for rescuers; for bystanders and Nazis, however, it increases a sense of vulnerability
  6. Speakers’ cognitive categorization systems carry strong ethical overtones. (711)

Gabriel Abend looks at the field of moral psychology from the other end of the telescope in “What the Science of Morality Doesn’t Say About Morality” (link). He provides a literature review the current research area in moral psychology that aims to discover a neuroscience analysis of morality. This field of research program attempts to provide neurophysiological correlates with moral judgments. “What brain areas are “activated,” “recruited,” “implicated,” “responsible for,” or “associated with” making moral judgments?” (162). Abend’s article provides a sustained critique of the assumptions in use in this field, and what he regards as its over-emphasis on one small aspect of “morality in everyday life”: the question of moral judgment. Against the idea that this line of research constitutes the whole of a “new science of morality”, Abend asks for methodological and theoretical pluralism. “I call for a pluralism of methods and objects of inquiry in the scientific investigation of morality, so that it transcends its problematic overemphasis on a particular kind of individual moral judgment” (abstract).

The approach to empirical research in moral psychology that appeals most to me is one that begins with a rich conception of the human moral subject — the human being capable of reflective thought and imagination, the person possessed with a social identity and self-image, the person situated within a set of meaningful social relationships, the person embodying a range of moral emotions. With a rich conception like this underlying the research agenda, there is ample space for empirical study of the causal and meaning-laden processes that influence action in difficult circumstances. And this approach brings empirical research into closer dialogue with philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Susan Neiman.

*     *     *     *     *

The topic of explaining brutal and violent actions in times of social upheaval is directly relevant to the violence of China’s Cultural Revolution represented in the photograph above. Here is a brief description of the violence by students against teachers and administrators in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution.

1966; August 5: Ms. Bian Zhongyun, the deputy principal of the Beijing Normal University Female Middle School, along with four other school educators, was attacked by the Red Guards on groundless charges. Bian died after several hours of humiliating treatment and brutal beating. This was the first case of the killing of educators in China by the Red Guards and other militant students. Many more cases followed, and the brutality escalated rapidly. Thousands of educators were publicly denounced and physically abused in “struggle sessions” by the rampaging students in Beijing’s secondary schools and universities. This includes 20 documented cases of killings y the Red Guards (Wang, 2004: 3-16 and Guo, 2006: 12) ***. The mass violence soon spread off campus, as the Red Guards beat seven residents of the same middle school to death in the city’s neighborhoods. In the District where this school was located, 333 residents were killed by the Red Guards at middle schools in August 1966 alone (Wang, 2004: 16) ***. [Yongyi Song, “Chronology of mass killings during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)”; link.)

Song summarizes a wide range of estimates of persons killed during the Cultural Revolution and settles on an estimate in excess of two million people. Many of the participants in these acts of cruelty, violence, humiliation, and murder were ordinary Chinese men and women, as well as teenagers and sub-teenagers. How are we to explain their behavior against their fellow citizens and even their teachers? Here are several earlier posts about the Cultural Revolution (link).

(Also of interest are several earlier posts in Understanding Society reviewing empirical work in psychology on the topic of character as a factor influencing behavior and action; linklink, link, link.)

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