The Situationist

The Motivated Situation of Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 15, 2008

A recent story on MSNBC summarizes research indicating “why we’re all moral hypocrites.” Here are a few excerpts.

* * *

Most of us, whether we admit it or not, are moral hypocrites. We judge others more severely than we judge ourselves.

Mounting evidence suggests moral decisions result from the jousting between our knee-jerk responses . . . and our slower, but more collected evaluations. Which is more responsible for our self-leniency?

To find out, a recent study presented people with two tasks. One was described as tedious and time-consuming; the other, easy and brief. The subjects were asked to assign each task to either themselves or the next participant. They could do this independently or defer to a computer, which would assign the tasks randomly.

Eighty-five percent of 42 subjects passed up the computer’s objectivity and assigned themselves the short task – leaving the laborious one to someone else. Furthermore, they thought their decision was fair. However, when 43 other subjects watched strangers make the same decision, they thought it unjust.

* * *

The researchers then “constrained cognition” by asking subjects to memorize long strings of numbers. In this greatly distracted state, subjects became impartial. They thought their own transgressions were just as terrible as those of others.

This suggests that we are intuitively moral beings, but “when we are given time to think about it, we construct arguments about why what we did wasn’t that bad,” said lead researcher Piercarlo Valdesolo, who conducted this study at Northeastern University and is now a professor at Amherst College.

* * *

The researchers speculate that instinctive morality results from evolutionary selection for team players. Being fair, they point out, strengthens mutually beneficial relationships and improves our chances for survival.

So why do we choose to judge ourselves so leniently?

* * *

To read teh entire article, including the answer to that last question, click here.

For related Situationists posts, see “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” “Our Brain and Morality,” The Situation of Reason,” “I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” and “Why We Punish.”

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One Response to “The Motivated Situation of Morality”

  1. Maya, CVT said

    Wait – are we saying that giving someone else a difficult task is as immoral as beating a child? I’m sure there is something to this….maybe if an abusive parent saw someone else abusing a child, they would be more angry at the other abuser. But then again, maybe not. Maybe they would conjure up an excuse for other parents to beat their child. This experiment seems a bit inconclusive on the morality point. Giving someone a challenging task is hardly as immoral as other cruel acts.

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