It's A Moral Issue! So Just Shut Up!

Merely labeling an attitude as moral increases its strength, reports new study


Dreamstime: Marek Uliasz

Climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery. Abortion is a moral issue. Gun control is a moral issue.  Same sex marriage is a moral issue. Genetically modified crops are a moral issue. Human enhancement is a moral issue. Premarital sex is a moral issue. Childhood vaccination is a moral issue. Pornography is a moral issue. Immigration is a moral issue. Recycling is a moral issue.

Partisans often seek to frame their views as a "moral issue" as way of saying that whatever it is that they favor is beyond the grubby realm of mere costs versus benefits and the sordid practicalities of reaching a compromise with opponents. Such framing works according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The researchers report that "merely labeling an attitude as moral increases its strength." For example, take recycling. 

The researchers first asked subjects to express their views on recycling. Not too surprisingly for a set of contemporary college students, most of them approved of it. Next the researchers told some subjects that their views were more aligned with evaluating the practicality of recycling while others were told that they evidently believed that recycling was a moral activity. All the subjects then read an article that criticized recycling (perhaps like this excellent one by former New York Times journalist John Tierney.) The subjects' attitudes were measured after reading the article. The result

…showed that participants who were told their views on recycling were based on morality were less likely to change their minds than those who were told their views were based on practical concerns.

"People held on to their moral beliefs in a way they didn't for other values we studied, like tradition, equality and practicality," [Andrew] Luttrell, [Ohio State University researcher] said.

"But what was remarkable was how easy it was to lead people into thinking their views were based on moral principles."

The results suggest that appeals to morality can be very effective to groups and political candidates trying to appeal to their supporters.

"People may be more willing to vote for a candidate or give money to an advocacy group if they believe it is a matter of morality," Luttrell said. "They're also less likely to be swayed by the opposition."

OK, maybe people who believe that their views are based on moral arguments don't always tell other people to shut up; instead they are sayiing "I can't hear you."

NEXT: California Looking for More Chances to Punish Businesses over Climate Change Positions

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  1. Well this certainly comes as a surprise.

    1. That it is a technique of manipulation cynically employed with the morals of a Borgia, or that so many rubes are so easily lead to fall for it?

      1. That people would have the audacity to use their preferences as a club to get others to follow along. Honestly, who could have seen that coming?

  2. Sooooooooo…. What does this say about arguing libertarian ideas from a morality stance?

    1. Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.

    2. The same as arguing anything else from a morality stance. Everyone wants to believe that they’re the true rightthinker.

    3. We should be deontological not utilitarian.

    4. It means that moral discussions should be about actual morals, not forecasted temperature rises.

      1. This!

  3. As Bob Wilson wrote, convictions make convicts.

  4. Of course. It’s the same reason everything is also labeled a matter of justice. Morality and justice are good, so how can you be against an issue that is good?

    1. Just like “you must hate children.”

    1. She should have to be subject to some kind of public humiliation. Saying “I am sorry” shouldn’t be good enough. She ought to have to make a sex tape or take some tasteful and properly photshopped to compensate for her age nude photos to get back into the good graces of the public.

      1. Hey, pal, use some hyphens next time so that it doesn’t take me 5 minutes to read your comment!

        1. I don’t see any need for hyphens. A few commas but no hyphens.

        2. Give John a break, he typed all that (one-handed) without a typo.

          You can tell he was morally motivated.

      2. Shorter John: go away, ‘batin!

    2. That is an awful lot of verbiage to get around having to say I lied.

  5. Morals are nothing but assumptions people make when they reason. So when someone says “its a moral issue” they usually mean “shut up and agree with my assumption”. “

    1. No. I think you mean axioms, not assumptions, but some are moral, some arent.

      1. I mean assumptions. What makes some of them moral and others not? At some point you have to start with an assumption or you can’t reason. And those assumptions are your morals. People like to pretend their morals are better than just assumptions, that they are determined by reason and such, but to believe that is to kid yourself.

        1. Slavery is wrong is a moral axiom.

          1+1 is 2 is an amoral axiom.

          1. Why slavery wrong? Because all men have equal dignity and rights? Okay, why is that the case? We could play this game forever. Eventually you have to start by assuming something. If you didn’t, Descartes would have had all of the answers. Sadly, he didn’t.

            1. Umm…its an axiom. You dont have to answer why about axioms, they are the starting point.

              1. Why your axioms and not mine?

                1. Because I dont give a damn about you?

                  1. Excellent way to prove the point. If you don’t give a damn about my morality, why should I give a damn about yours? And if we’re both tied up in not giving a damn about each other’s morality, why would we even try to convince one another? Much easier to just say I’m right and you’re wrong.

                    1. And that is why disagreements are settled by violence. Because ultimately, all that matters is whether you can enforce your viewpoint.

                    2. If you think 1+1=2, I might be able to teach you calculus.

                      If you think its 3, you are a lost cause.

                      I dont argue/debate with people who dont accept my acioms.

                    3. Well, I do, but I shouldnt.

                    4. Next on the robc show, why mathematics is morality.

      2. Axioms are exactly the assumptions that John is talking about. Assumptions people make when they reason.

        You can say “these truths are self evident”. And I might agree with you. But they are really just things we assume because they appear to us to be good or correct.

        Of course you are right that you can’t have a meaningful argument with someone if you can’t agree on some axioms. But that still doesn’t make them not assumptions.

  6. And the proper response to “this is a moral argument” is “it may be to you but it is not to me”.

    1. So said the slaveowners.

      1. Some moral arguments actualky are moral arguments. Quite often, in the exact opposite meaning of the person making the morality claim.

        1. Yes so do say the slave owners. And who are you to say they are wrong? Sure, you think they are immoral. But they have a moral system that says it is fine. Why is yours necessarily better than theirs? You like yours better and I do too. But that doesn’t make them wrong. It just means you and I like ours better.

          1. Someone who says 1+1=3 may like their math better, but they are still wrong.

            Same applies to morality. Not all moral codes are created equal. Some are more right than others.

            There is a platonic ideal for morality (insert cave shadow bullshit here).

            1. Show me a moral axiom that can be proven to the same certainty as a mathematical one and i will agree. Sadly, no such thing exists because if it did, we wouldn’t be having moral debates anymore.

              1. TJ claimed many were self-evident which is not always true in math.

                Although the definition of axiom says they should be.

                1. TJ also benefitted by 2000 years of state sponsored Christianity baked into his culture.

                  1. From*

          2. Does the slave owner’s case for morality break down once we consider the slave’s morality?

            1. Irrelevant. 1) Morality does not assume egalitarianism. 2) slaves were considered subhuman.

          3. If you cannot say the slave owner is wrong then you cannot say liberty is an inalienable right that applies universally to all men. You are conceding far too much.

    2. John, are you finally accepting moral relativism? If so, it’s about damn time.

      1. Moral relativism is anathema to libertarianism.

        1. And?

      2. No I am not. I am theist, so I have a higher authority from which to derive my morals. If I was not a theist, however, I would absolutely embrace moral relativism. There would be no rational way I could avoid it.

        1. Well you at least seem to be accepting that not everyone shares your preferences. And making some rather decent arguments in the process.

          1. For the record, this is why so many political arguments are so pointless. Both sides start off with a different set of assumptions and then proceed to talk past each other. Since there is no way to productively argue when both sides start with different assumptions and it is virtually impossible to get someone to change their moral assumptions, most political arguments end in stalemate.

            The only way to win such an argument is to understand the other person’s assumption and then figure out a way to prove your case using those assumptions. Do that and your opponent might come around. But doing that is usually quite difficult and rarely possible, since most people build their assumptions to fit the answer they want.

            1. As I see it, the ideal doesn’t necessitate bringing others to your way of thinking. It only requires that both parties understand each other and try to find common ground. As you say, that’s easier said than done as many will see common ground as concession.

              1. Yes. If you can get someone to understand your position and at least appreciate it even if they don’t agree, that is progress and about as much progress as you can hope for.

            2. But doing that is usually quite difficult and rarely possible

              Especially since you’ll get called a cosmo (or a yokel).

  7. Speaking of ethics, weren’t we considered right-wing crackpots when we suggested this might be the incentive?

    The Columbia student says she plans to continue “sugaring” after she graduates to buy herself time to find a more traditional job and remain officially unemployed so she can defer repaying the roughly $70,000 in loans she had already racked up.…..tion-rent/

    1. I do not believe women have agency, so I am outraged.

    2. If you’re looking for the easiest way to make money and you don’t have anything against prostituting yourself, I’m not sure why you’d go to college.

      “Continue sugaring after she graduates to buy herself time”

      I don’t think she’ll be using her degree, just saying

      1. If you’re genetically gifted and there’s a long line of men willing to give you money in exchange for your assets, more power to you.

      2. There’s only so long you can do that well as a prostitute. Good to have a backup. And maybe she liked college. That’s a reason to do something.

    3. Would.

  8. “Climate change” is so over. Do try and keep up, won’t you?

    “Climate justice is a term used for framing global warming as an ethical and political issue, rather than one that is purely environmental or physical in nature.”

  9. It used to be that people would signal that they were “good people” through behavior

    Now it comes from collecting a window-dressing of public-policy opinions you share on social media.

    We’ve talked about Moral Narcissism being the social-force du jour a long time ago

    apparently someone wrote a book about it.

    1. The blurb on his book suggests his focus is more narrowly on public-policy itself…. whereas i’ve always thought its something more important to understand as a widely-dispersed social-phenomenon.

      This guy here makes similar observations =

      moral narcissism: the tendency to think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather in terms of their consequences for others. I argued in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that German foreign policy debates, for example about the Kosovo and Iraq wars, tend to be narcissistic in this way ? they focused, it seems to me, on German identity rather than on the fate of the people in the places where the crises were happening. I was interested to see that my colleague Jos? Ignacio Torreblanca made a similar point ? but in Weberian terms….. He suggested that current German foreign policy was gesinnungsethisch rather than verantwortungsethisch ? that is, it is based on Max Weber’s concept of an “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right ? regardless of the effects.

      I would caveat that – its not about actually *being right*, its about *being seen* as being right.

    2. Here’s Simon in an essay (which i guess is either a snippet from his book or a summary of the argument) =

      The short form is this: What you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe?not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be?defines you as a person and makes you “good.” It is how your life will be judged by others and by yourself. In 19th-century France, the gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin told us that “you are what you eat.” In 21st-century America, almost all of us seem to have concluded that “you are what you say you are. You are what you proclaim your values to be, irrespective of their consequences.” That is moral narcissism.

      This is a narcissism of political and social thought, a narcissism that evolved as religion declined, a narcissism of ideas and attitudes, a narcissism of “I know best,” of “I believe therefore I am.” It is our identity tied up inextricably to our belief system in a way that brooks no examination. It is a narcissism of groupthink that makes you assume you are better than you are because you have the same received and conventional ideas as your peers, a mutual reward system not unlike the French concept of BTBG?bon type, bon genre?but taken to a national extreme.

      People will remember your pronouncements, not your actions

  10. My roads are a moral issue.

  11. My roads are a moral issue.

    1. Everything is a moral issue if you want to reason it that way badly enough. Its why its called “rationalization”. You can reason your way into thinking even the most horrible act is a moral imperative. You just have to start with the right assumptions and work hard enough to get there.

  12. David Frum was told to check his privilege.

    I never check my white privilege, for fear the cloakroom girl will misplace it amid the opera capes and top hats.

    1. He is a total shit weasel, but that is pretty funny. Bravo. And I want an opera cape badly but my wife promises revenge if I ever buy one.

  13. I disagree.

    Pornography is a morale issue.

    It certainly perks my spirit up.

    1. perks my spirit

      Is that what you call it?

      1. A little more abstraction would be nice, Bobarian.

  14. I’m definitely saving the John Tierney article for future reference. It’s probably more convincing to my friends than “recycling is bullsh!t”.

    Also, I admire his remarkable restraint when describing the blithering idiocy of Deblasio.

    1. I have postulated many times that if Recycling weren’t an actual drag on resources, they’d be paying us to take it.

      I strongly believe that we’re not actually getting anything back from recycling, but are actually depleting resources by participating in it.

      1. The Tierney article goes into some detail about what’s worth recycling (paper and metal) and what isn’t (everything else).

        1. I believe that paper is worthwhile because the only other way to get paper is to cut down trees. So even if there’s a higher cost– even in energy– to recycle paper, that the payoff is that fewer trees are cut down.

          I’ll bet metal is a little more tough to nail down because it’s going to depend on the metal, and depend heavily on the process to sort, clean and prepare it. I’m reading the Tierney article now, but I’m wondering how many billions of gallons of water are being wasted by rinsing all of these containers before they go into the nation’s recycling bins.

          I no longer rinse anything going into the recycling bin. They want it clean, they can rinse it, and I suspect they can rinse it more efficiently than I can.

          1. I usually don’t rinse but that’s because I have better things to do with my time. The fact that it actually negates almost all the paltry benefits of recycling the material is just icing on the cake.

          2. I have to store my recycling in the basement until recycling day comes around, so I rinse to avoid odors spreading through the house (3 cats use a fairly sizeable number of cans of cat food in a week).

          3. The thing about paper is that paper companies plant a lot more trees than they cut down (at least ones in the US and Canada do). I’ve heard differing views on whether paper recycling is worthwhile. But I don’t think that the “saving trees” argument holds a lot of water. Besides paper companies maintaining huge forests, there is also the issue of all of the nasty chemicals you have to use to clean up recycled paper pulp if you want to use it to make nice, finished goods.

    2. Most people don’t even know what moral philosophy is much less have the ability to engage in it. So when someone appeals to the moral imperative of something, it is nearly always because they have lost the argument and are looking for an easy way out. Sure I can’t explain why you should rationally agree with me but you are morally required to so shut up.

      That is really all that is happening in most cases.

  15. Appeals to morality, in this day and age, are mostly just appeals to feelz. Most people have given absolutely zero thought to morality as a system or philosophy, and just think whatever feelz icky is immoral, and whatever feelz good is moral.

    1. Well, hedonism is tied to morality.

      But the essence of your statement, I think, is correct.

      1. Hedonism is a perfectly reasonable moral system.

    2. You mean people will respond like Pavlov’s dogs to any cause as long as it is couched in terms like “fighting bigotry”?

      1. “Hillary: Fighting for Us!”

  16. There was, some time back, a wonderful PBS special on the comedy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. One routine (I think it was audio over a still shot), treated the quiz show scandal.

    May: “They can’t fool around with this the way they did with integration!”

    Nichols: “It’s a moral issue!”

    May: “Yes! It’s a moral issue! And to me, that’s always so much more interesting than a real issue.”

  17. RE: It’s A Moral Issue! So Just Shut Up!
    Merely labeling an attitude as moral increases its strength, reports new study

    Morality is what our ruling elitist filth says it is.
    Who are we, the unwashed masses to question our obvious betters?

  18. “The researchers report that “merely labeling an attitude as moral increases its strength.” For example, take recycling. ”

    That is not an example of researchers merely labeling an attitude as moral. In the very next sentence we learn that subjects were already expressing an opinion that recycling was moral before researchers had the chance to merely label it as moral.

    1. Reading comprehension is hard. They randomly told people that their beliefs were either moral or practical – it had nothing to do with what they said. Those that were simply TOLD their beliefs were moral were less swayed by the article.

      1. I think you and Ron are looking at this backwards. People who are told to look at recycling from a practical or Utilitarian point of view feel they have license to not to take morality into account in their calculations.

        Personally, I see great spiritual value in recycling. It’s done on a weekly basis, like the all the best religions. I find great comfort in properly returning our leavings to a point where they can take yet another spin on the great wheel of produce-buy-consume-recycle.

  19. Partisans often seek to frame their views as a “moral issue” as way of saying that whatever it is that they favor is beyond the grubby realm of mere costs versus benefits and the sordid practicalities of reaching a compromise with opponents.

    I don’t disagree that many issues are overly moralized. But empirical cost-benefit analyses are not universally superior criteria either. There are boundless instances where it’s objectively true that you benefit more economically but suffer intangible losses in other ways that outweigh any economic gain. Subjective value is a bitch like that.

    1. The thing about subjective value is that it is subjective. Different people will make different choices depending upon their situation. The moralists want to force people to conform to their choice, regardless of what the person in question may want or need.

  20. “Different people will make different choices depending upon their situation.”

    That will always be true. Question is do you think moralists make worse choices than non-moralist choice makers? People do tend to share a moral code, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is how Christians put it. If you think you can improve on that, you’re welcome to give it a try.

    1. Depends on the source of the morals.

      1. As I say, the wellspring of a moral code is the Golden Rule, or variants thereof. Maybe you follow the Satanic Code, do what thou will.

  21. If you believe humans come with rights that a just government is obliged to protect ( like life, property, freedom of speech, conscience, etc.), then you believe in a whole suite of moral issues. As rights are an aspect of morality.

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