Just because it’s “moral” doesn’t mean it’s “right.”


“I don’t always think about morality…but when I do, I think Dick Cheney.”

Thus opened Peter Ditto’s talk at the SPSP Political Psychology pre-conference, greeted with a laugh from a largely-left-leaning audience. Yet as Ditto continued speaking, it became clear what he meant. When it comes to social issues, Dick Cheney is right-leaning on almost every single one…except gay marriage. This exception is seemingly entirely due to his emotional connection with his daughter, a happily-married lesbian. Ditto asserts that this political anecdote exemplifies an important empirical point: Our political beliefs are often swayed by our emotions.

A fascinating series of studies published by Ditto and his colleague Brittany Liu empirically supports the idea that certain kinds of emotions (specifically our moral intuitions) can shape not only our political beliefs, but also our perceptions of political facts. Even though the “moral” choice might not always be the most empirically effective, people actually end up shifting their perceptions of objective costs and benefits to accommodate their moral beliefs.

Take sex education, for example. In a survey of over 1,500 visitors to the website YourMorals (http://www.yourmorals.org), people who believed that condom education was immoral (even if effective) thought that it was less effective and more likely to encourage teenage sexual activity than those who didn’t imbue the topic with as much immorality. The similar pattern arose for other topics, including the death penalty and torture — the more that people believed torture was morally wrong (even if technically effective), the less effective they thought it was, and the more downsides to the action they saw.

Yet, compelling as these data might be, they are correlational. Are there experimental data that support this idea of moral beliefs shifting “objective” cost-benefit analyses?

Yes. Liu and Ditto asked a new batch of participants to report their pre-existing attitudes toward the death penalty, randomly assigned each one to read an essay that either said the death penalty was inherently moral or inherently immoral, and then asked the participants to report their attitudes again. Confirming the correlational conclusions, participants who read an essay encouraging them to think about torture as moral favorably shifted their cost-benefit analyses; they changed their attitudes about the death penalty to reflect a belief that the death penalty is more effective and less costly. Those who read an essay that emphasized the immorality of the death penalty, on the other hand, were more likely to shift their attitudes towards seeing the death penalty as less effective and more costly.

As Ditto puts it, people think that “what is moral is effective.” It’s not just that shifting perceptions of how moral (or immoral) an action is shifts people’s ideas about whether that action is “good” or “bad” — that would be fairly self-apparent. However, it is interesting to confirm that these shifts in morality actually shift how objectively effective someone considers a given practice — a judgment that should be based on facts, not emotional reasoning.

Ditto also notes that this effect is a good part of what continues to fuel partisan conflict. If morality can sway what you consider to be an objective fact, it naturally follows that people on both sides of an issue (especially when the issue itself is morally charged) might formulate different perceptions of what the “facts” actually are. If you think your facts are objectively “right” and the other side does as well, it’s easier to simply dismiss other points of view by assuming that the people endorsing them must be uninformed.

See here for an earlier blog post on this research by study author Brittany Liu: http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/2012/08/moral_coherence/


Liu, B., & Ditto, P. (2012). What Dilemma? Moral Evaluation Shapes Factual Belief SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2071478

One response to “Just because it’s “moral” doesn’t mean it’s “right.”

  1. wow!!! this is so awesome. I’ve been thinking that our perceived sense of morality affects how we view issues such as these but lacked the evidence to back it up…The challenge is, given that our sense of morality & emotions distort our view of what is effective, how do we communicate and seek mutual understanding with others who have different worldviews and morality?

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