Moral Realism May Encourage Moral Actions
January 30, 2013

Just Asking The Right Question May Lead To Moral Behavior

Jedidiah for — Your Universe Online

Are there certain aspects of morality that are objective and universally true everywhere and at all times? Or are moral beliefs nothing more than the subjective product of a person´s culture and opinions? Regardless of what your answers may be to these deep philosophical questions, a team of researchers now says that just thinking about these issues may improve your moral behavior.

In two separate experiments, researchers at Boston College found that they could influence an individual´s moral behavior simply by getting them to think about the nature of morality in a certain way.

For one group of study participants, the researchers ℠primed´ them by asking the question "Do you agree that some things are just morally right or wrong, good or bad, wherever you happen to be from in the world?" This question reflects a belief known as ℠moral realism´ which implies that moral principles, like objective scientific facts, are always true regardless of who or where you are.

The researchers then asked a second group of participants a similar question that was framed very differently: "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?" This position is referred to as ℠moral antirealism´ and it asserts that moral codes are nothing more than subjective opinions that are influenced by an individual´s environment and personal feelings.

A third group of participants was not asked any questions and served as the control group.

While people will likely remain divided for long time over the question of whether morals are objective facts or subjective opinions, this research team was interested in exploring the impact that these views have on an individuals´ actions rather than finding an answer to the question itself — if there even is one.

"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," explained the study´s lead researcher Liane Young, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College. "We wanted to explore the impact of these different meta-ethical views on actual behavior."

One version of the study was conducted online while the other was performed in person. In both versions of the experiment, the participants were asked to make a donation to a charity organization after they had answered the question about morality. The team of psychologists found that in both the online and in-person study, those individuals who were primed with the moral-realism question pledged to donate more money to the charity than individuals from either the antirealism or the control group.

While a handful of academics have dabbled in the issue of how meta-ethical views influence people´s actions, Young and her former research assistant A.J. Durwin are the first to probe these questions experimentally.

"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, 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."

The researchers say that priming people to think about moral realism may actually encourage people to act in accordance with their existing moral beliefs. They also note, however, that the ability to stimulate people towards moral behavior simply by asking them the right question may only work in certain circumstances. For instance, the act of being generous is almost universally considered to be morally positive, particularly in Western culture. However, in situations where the moral value in consideration is more controversial and less widely accepted, the simple act of priming individuals with moral realism may not produce the same effect as in simpler, less ambiguous situations.

The report of their experiments, titled “Moral realism as moral motivation: The impact of meta-ethics on everyday decision-making,” appears in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.