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Is Moralization on the Upswing?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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You raise some questions about what “counts” as moral behavior in your last post, which got me thinking about a related question that changes the conversation a bit: What counts as a moral issue?  I ask this because in the past few months, I have read and heard arguments suggesting that watching Django Unchained, listening to Chief Keef, and even watching professional football constitute (im)moral actions.  These are practices that we could not imagine existing a couple centuries ago, much less could we assess their moral nature.  This question is also top of mind because I recently re-read Steven Pinker’s, “The Moral Instinct,” which I assigned to the class I am teaching on values and ethics.  In this article, Pinker suggests that whereas some practices have only become moralized in recent history (as I suggest above) other practices such as divorce and marijuana use have become amoralized in recent history.  So which force is increasing more rapidly, moralization or amoralization?

NFL superfans cheer on a sport that some say knowingly risks players' lives

Although the question, “Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?” has been repeatedly asked for decades suggesting a continual decline of moralization, the examples above give me the slightest hunch that moralization has done nothing but increase.  I have virtually no empirical evidence to back me up except for the increased reach and scope of the American legal system, and in fact Michael J. Sandel’s recent treatise on how marketization has corrupted once-sacred commodities, suggests the opposite pattern.  Nonetheless, I am inclined to think that any societal production be it a sport, a genre of music, or a film can become moralized and therefore moralization can only increase.

As I know of no definitive empirical answers as to whether moralization is on the rise, I have begun to investigate it myself with colleagues.  Our only finding of note so far is that people who take a highly moral stance on a particular issue and people who take a highly amoral stance on the issue behave remarkably similar in their conviction.  Perhaps that is why this question is so difficult to tease apart. I’m curious what your take is on whether moralization is increasing or decreasing or if you know of any work that is particularly relevant to the topic.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Adam Waytz About the Author: Adam Waytz is a psychologist who studies the attribution and denial of mental states to other agents, and the moral and ethical implications of these processes. Follow on twitter: @awaytz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. Shoshin 11:39 am 04/25/2013

    Moralization is being used as a justification for poor and shoddy science in the man made global warming debate. Alarmists know that the science will not support their outdated and proven false claims, so they increasingly rely on casting it as a “moral”issue to “save unborn generations”.

    Unfortunately, politicians have zero in the way of science knowledge and are willing to commit an infinitely more immoral act by directly crippling the economy and destroying lives.

    And that is why “morality” has no place in science. One person’s pursuit of “high morality” results in another person’s violation or destitution. Moral issues have no common ground or balance; they are off/on yes/no matters.

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  2. 2. Shoshin 11:48 am 04/25/2013

    And here is a concrete example of the issue I raised in the previous post.

    The question that I will raise is whether the eco-movement is acting morally in promoting a scientifically discredited theory and making $$ from it?

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  3. 3. TTLG 12:22 pm 04/25/2013

    I think there are several things going on here. If morals are a matter of doing harm to others, then morality can change depending on what is most harmful. When it was very difficult for a woman to get a job, divorce would be immoral because it would effectively sentence a person to poverty. As the freedom of women increased, so does the attitudes towards divorce. On the other hand, before the advent of automobiles a drunk person had relatively little ability to harm others. As the speed, power and availability of cars increased, the tolerance for drunk driving decreased.

    I think there also is a matter of to what degree people can get away with mistreatment of others. When a few well-armed people could control many, the welfare of the many was not important. When people learned that armored knights could be defeated by many people with longbows or pikes, the welfare of the people suddenly became a matter of morals for those in power. The same could be said for when occupied countries learned how to drive out the occupiers.

    There are many other examples of changing morality. I suppose if one was to make a thorough list of these and the circumstances under which they changed, one might be able to find some consistent patterns showing the underlying causes for what we call out morals.

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  4. 4. plswinford 2:53 pm 04/25/2013

    I would say morals have had an operational point. Moral rules keep group A stronger in the presence of groups B, C, and D. When a group decides to become amoral, they also loose internal cohesion, which in the presence of a capable competitor can lead to disaster. Or if their situational readiness was supported by their moral structure, becoming amoral also leads to disaster.

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  5. 5. tuned 3:29 pm 04/25/2013

    The question is so arbitrary I am compelled to ask rather, “why have morals”? Morality Is good behavior after all, so hard to imagine it’s upswing.
    It is clear to me the “best” morals are to harm people the least. That includes the planet we all need to survive. Remember Easter Island. Technology has enabled that redux too fast to stop in time maybe.
    Morals must bow to the conundrum of survival at times however. When the “rubber meets the road” it is no more moral to sacrifice yourself or your nation than to defend it. An attacker is not worth any more than you are. Self defense is a genetic automatic. It takes a lot of cultural voodoo to overcome what nature put in you.

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  6. 6. cryofpaine 6:42 pm 04/25/2013

    Morality is a personal issue, subjectively defined; not a universal objective truth. So the answer is both. We are seeing a polarization of society. As some groups seek to remove moral judgements that have been long held on things such as homosexuality, other groups are responding by adding moral judgements to relatively new issues.

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