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The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong

Is Moralization on the Upswing?

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JZ,

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

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

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