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."