Why Do Certain Things Feel Morally Wrong?
There was a time in my life when I thought that morality could not be studied scientifically. To me, morals seemed to be absolute truths—not something that could be quantified or studied under an empirical lens. The irony of my past self is now only too clear. Below, I’ll share with you some research I’ve conducted on—you guessed it—the science of morality.
Where do moral judgments come from? Are morals similar to absolute truths like I had originally thought? Only a few decades ago, most Americans judged same-sex marriage as immoral and wrong. In 1988, only about 10% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. In 2020, 70% of Americans did so. It’s hard to capture the magnitude of this shift in public opinion or to fully appreciate the impact it has had on countless lives. This shift demonstrates, at least to me, that what is moral and immoral can change markedly and is relative to the surrounding context. At minimum, some morals aren’t absolute like I had originally thought. So, then, what makes us judge something as more or less moral? Why do morals shift over time and in different situations?
Across philosophy, psychology, and sociology, many very smart people have tried to figure out why we hold the morals we do and how morals change. Answers to these questions have largely focused on two explanations—let’s call them the deliberative pathway and the intuitionist pathway.
The deliberative pathway involves thought and reasoning. As conscious, enlightened creatures, human beings reason out what is right and wrong in a logical fashion. For example, you could conclude that cheating on a test is wrong because it betrays the trust of other people and undermines meritocracy. In contrast, the intuitionist pathway involves our emotional, “gut” reactions. So, for instance, you might conclude that cheating on a test is wrong because it just feels wrong.
Despite helping us understand our morality, you might not be satisfied with these two explanations of morality. The intuitionist pathway in particular leaves a bit to be desired. It’s somewhat of a shallow explanation as it immediately raises the question: well, if moral judgments are based on gut feelings, where do these moral gut reactions come from? For example, where does the gut reaction that cheating on a test is wrong come from? Why did same-sex marriage feel wrong to people in the past but now feels right? And, moreover, why do actions that have no harmful consequences, such as burning an American flag alone in the woods, sometimes feel immoral? In a series of studies, my colleagues and I tried to answer this question.
From an evolutionary perspective, morality has played a role in humans’ lives for a very, very long time. Potentially, then, a basic evolutionary factor might explain why we feel like some actions are immoral while others are not. In trying to identify such a factor, we considered the possibility that immoral actions generally break the pattern of behavior that people are used to. That is, actions that we view as immoral tend to be irregular, unusual, or abnormal. For instance, cutting someone with a knife or peeing on a stranger are definitely not normal, regular behaviors.
Given that immoral actions tend to be irregular or unusual, we wondered whether people’s general sensitivity to irregularities—their discomfort in response to actions or things that break the pattern of what they are used to—may evoke the negative gut responses that lead people to judge something as immoral. For example, cheating on a test violates the typical “pattern” of behavior that we are used to: generally, people keep their eyes focused on their own exam. And, the fact that cheating breaks the normal pattern may make us feel negatively about cheating, leading us to judge it as morally wrong. If this idea is correct, people who feel more uncomfortable about irregularities in their environments – including even non-social inconsistencies, such as broken patterns of geometric shapes – should condemn immoral actions more strongly.
To test this idea, we conducted two studies with over 500 participants examining whether people’s discomfort towards non-social irregularities is linked to their moral judgments. For example, we tested whether feeling uncomfortable when seeing simple broken patterns of geometric shapes, such as a row of triangles with one triangle out of line, is associated with judging immoral actions as more wrong and wanting to punish those actions more harshly.
Our results showed found exactly this effect. Participants who were more sensitive to broken geometric patterns also judged moral violations, such as stealing from someone and peeing on a stranger, as more morally wrong. And, when asked to play the role of a court judge, participants who were more bothered by the broken geometric patterns punished these violations with higher fines and longer jail time. Finally, in line with the intuitionist pathway described above, participants’ sensitivity to broken geometric patterns was more strongly related to their moral judgments if they tended to rely heavily on their gut feelings.
What do these findings tell us? First, although people are not aware of it, something as simple as our sensitivity to irregularities can affect our morality. Second, moral shifts across time and situations may be driven, in part, by the degree to which people judge particular behaviors as irregular or abnormal. For example, same-sex marriage was viewed as irregular and abnormal in the 1980s, and this may be a reason why many people judged such unions as immoral. However, as same-sex marriage became more normalized, such unions weren’t as unusual and didn’t activate people’s discomfort to irregularities as much. As a result, people suddenly didn’t feel that negative gut feeling anymore. Voilà, same-sex marriage no longer seemed immoral.
Strikingly, this means that if you change people’s perceptions of an action away from being irregular or abnormal, they should judge that action as more moral. We directly tested this idea in a third study. In this study, participants read the same moral violations as earlier, such as cutting someone with a knife or peeing on a stranger. Except now, we told participants to imagine that they were in an alternate society in which these behaviors were actually very normal and accepted—everyone was peeing on one another! Our question was whether describing these originally immoral actions as common and accepted would lead participants who were sensitive to irregularities to suddenly judge these immoral actions as more moral.
This is exactly what we found. Participants who really disliked the broken patterns of geometric shapes were more likely to show moral relativism—their moral judgments depended on the surrounding cultural norms. In line with the historical shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage, participants who imagined that the behaviors were common and accepted thought that the originally immoral behaviors were not that immoral anymore. Whether a behavior is moral or not, then, is determined, at least in part, by whether that behavior is “usual” or “common” in a specific time period or situation.
But why does our sensitivity to irregularities affect our morality? Why aren’t our moral judgments informed solely by reason and deliberation? Perhaps automatically judging irregular behaviors as immoral evolved because it was efficient and adaptive. By leading people to judge irregular behaviors as immoral, people’s sensitivity to irregularities may have deterred them from engaging in unusual behaviors. This, in turn, should have led people to conform to the actions of others—a tendency that can help people survive in a group and ultimately heighten the survival of group members.
That being said, the modern world is very different from the hunter-gatherer societies in which our sensitivity to irregularities may have evolved. I’m not so sure that we need this sensitivity anymore to live moral lives and survive. Remember, our sensitivity to irregularities can misfire. For example, this sensitivity likely led many people to judge same-sex marriage as immoral as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.
The lesson here, then, is that if you come across something that you think is weird or strange, don’t be so quick to trust your gut feeling that it is immoral or wrong. It may well be immoral. But it might simply be unusual. Unless you think carefully about your gut reactions, you’ll incorrectly classify many unusual behaviors as immoral, leading to unfounded prejudices and intolerances.
For Further Reading
Gollwitzer, A., Martel, C., Bargh, J. A., & Chang, S. W. (2020). Aversion towards simple broken patterns predicts moral judgment. Personality and Individual Differences, 160, 109810.
Anton Gollwitzer is completing his Ph.D. in psychology at Yale University. His interests are perversely diverse and span across social psychology, clinical psychology, and human behavior more generally. See www.antongollwitzer.com for a peek at the projects he’s currently working on.