We often view moral judgments with suspicion and fear. And perhaps it’s little wonder. Every day our social media feeds overflow with criticism and condemnation. Workplace gossip threatens people’s careers and psychological well-being. At times it seems that our national politics has devolved into little more than a war of ad hominem attacks.

Beyond the harms, there is also hypocrisy. It is not uncommon to discover that those who make moral judgments—public evaluations of the rightness or wrongness of others’ behavior—do not themselves conform to the moral norms they eagerly enforce. Think, for instance, of politicians or religious leaders who oppose gay rights but are later discovered soliciting sex from other men. These examples and others seem to make it clear: moral judgments are antisocial, a bug in the code of society.

But recent research challenges this view, suggesting that moral judgments are a critical part of the social fabric, a force that encourages people to consider the welfare of others. Our work, and that of others, implies that—while sometimes disadvantageous—moral judgments have important, positive effects for individuals and the groups they inhabit.

For example, in an experiment recently published in Scientific Reports, we had groups of unacquainted people take part in a “public goods” game. In the game, all group members were given a personal allocation of money that they could either keep or contribute to a public fund. Moneys contributed to the public fund were doubled and split equally among group members. The structure of the game means that everyone profits more individually by “free-riding,” keeping—rather than contributing—their own money, while also taking their share of the public fund. If everyone free-rides, however, there is no public fund and the group as a whole does worse than if it had overcome the temptation to free-ride.

It’s game that has been studied thousands of times, with the typical result that groups contribute at relatively high levels early on, before steadily reduce their giving in subsequent rounds. We observed this same pattern in the groups of our experiment that played the standard game. However, we added a twist, allowing some groups to communicate moral judgments about one another’s behavior between rounds. These moral judgments were simple ratings of each group member’s play in the game on a scale from “very immoral” to “very moral” (participants could also choose to submit “no judgment”).  After submitting their ratings, group members’ computers displayed all the group members’ ratings before continuing to the next round of contributions.

Interestingly, groups who could submit moral judgments of one another sustained high levels of contribution to the public fund across all rounds of the study. Merely having the ability to submit evaluations of one another’s morality was enough to solve the cooperation problem in this classic game. This was despite the fact that group members were strangers, isolated in separate rooms, identified to one another only by their assigned participant numbers.

To understand the power of moral judgments, we also looked at the behavior of groups that were allowed to administer costly monetary fines or rewards to one another. The effects of these rewards and punishments on contributions was roughly the same as the effect of moral judgments. In other words, people were just as motivated when their moral reputations were on the line as when their study pay was.

But perhaps more important for understanding the power of moral judgments in group life is what happened after these rounds of the public goods game. Group members were paired with one another in a series of decisions in which we measured various forms of prosocial behavior, including measures of generosity, trust, and trustworthiness that all had real money stakes. Members of the moral judgment groups showed higher levels of generosity, trust, and trustworthiness than all other groups in the study, including those who had been allowed to use material rewards and punishments to maintain contributions.

So what went on here? Why were these costless moral judgments as effective as material rewards and punishments in the short run, and more effective at promoting generosity, trust, and trustworthiness over the longer run? The skeptical view of moral judgments would lead us to expect little impact of costless interpersonal criticism or praise from strangers. In this view, interpersonal judgments are little more than “cheap talk,” especially as compared with rewards and punishments that have real money stakes.

But this narrow, economic view overlooks the depth of individuals’ concerns for maintaining reputations as decent people. The fear of condemnation—and the desire for moral praise—are deeply motivating to most people. Indeed, we found that members of moral judgment groups contributed at higher levels than control groups even in the first round of the game, before group members had any chance to communicate judgments.

Thus, even the anticipation of moral praise or condemnation was sufficient to motivate group members to contribute at high levels. Because people generally made large contributions to the group from the first round on, most of the moral ratings participants submitted were very positive, praising one another for putting the group’s interests above their own. The few who decided to free-ride, giving below the group’s normative levels, were quickly criticized by their fellow group members. This criticism tended to bring these wayward group members back in line. Thus, while most moral judgments were positive, condemnation—and perhaps more importantly, the threat of moral condemnation—was important as well.

But why did moral judgment groups feature high levels of generosity, trust, and trustworthiness in these later interactions, while other groups generally did not? One answer may be that, where moral judgments are often viewed negatively in popular culture, studies find that those who make moral judgments of unambiguously selfish or antisocial behavior are generally viewed very positively. For example, in other research we have found that moral judges of unethical behavior are trusted more and more often selected as interaction partners (a finding shown in other research as well). We even found that moral judgments can be ennobling for those who make them. For example, people who were randomly assigned to make moral judgments of another person’s unfair actions identified more strongly as a moral person and acted in a more trustworthy way in subsequent interactions with strangers.

To summarize, we find that moral judgments of unethical behavior are generally viewed as a legitimate means for maintaining group-beneficial norms of conduct. Those who use them are generally seen as moral and trustworthy, and individuals typically act more morally after communicating judgments of others. 

So what then can explain the tension between our findings—which suggest the prospect of moral praise and criticism is fundamental to the maintenance of social order—and the often very negative view people hold of moral judgments? One answer is that moral judgments are sometimes viewed negatively by observers with different principles or information.

Where our work focused on moral domains where there is moderate to high consensus about right and wrong, in other settings dissensus often reigns. In particular, politicized issues often feature sharply divergent intuitions about right and wrong. Morally judging a woman who has an abortion might seem like a sign of character to a Republican, but disdainful to a Democrat.

Additionally, people often have very different knowledge of and interpretations of everyday events. For example, you may be accused of slacking at work, but feel that you did the best you could while caring for a sick relative.

There are other exceptions as well, such as situations where moral opprobrium appears disproportionate and unforgiving, that help clarify why we often view moral judgments with suspicion. And of course our own personal concern that we may be targeted—justly or not—with moral scorn may color our own judgments of judgments. But our recent research on behavior in settings where moral judgments are possible and not possible shines a light on their important effects. Interpersonal moral judgments serve to connect our abstract moral values to everyday events.

Where we all may agree that fairness is important, it is unclear how it relates to our decisions to divide a check, share responsibility for a collaborative project, or choose a school for our child. The application of principle to these situations is negotiated, clarified, and—finally—enforced through a process in which specific acts are praised, criticized, or merely accepted.

Though it is a collective negotiation that is challenged by powerful forces—imperfect information, self-interest, divided values—it is nonetheless fundamental to our social lives. And while we may fear the judgments of our peers, we should fear more an anonymized world where they were impossible, as this would be a social reality where cooperation is tentative, trust rarely extended, and acts of benevolence harder to find.