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The Perceived Objectivity of Ethical Beliefs: Psychological Findings and Implications for Public Policy

Abstract

Ethical disputes arise over differences in the content of the ethical beliefs people hold on either side of an issue. One person may believe that it is wrong to have an abortion for financial reasons, whereas another may believe it to be permissible. But, the magnitude and difficulty of such disputes may also depend on other properties of the ethical beliefs in question—in particular, how objective they are perceived to be. As a psychological property of moral belief, objectivity is relatively unexplored, and we argue that it merits more attention. We review recent psychological evidence which demonstrates that individuals differ in the extent to which they perceive ethical beliefs to be objective, that some ethical beliefs are perceived to be more objective than others, and that both these sources of variance are somewhat systematic. This evidence also shows that differences in perceptions of objectivity underpin quite different psychological reactions to ethical disagreement. Apart from reviewing this evidence, our aim in this paper is to draw attention to unanswered psychological questions about moral objectivity, and to discuss the relevance of moral objectivity to two issues of public policy.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. For the purposes of this paper we use the terms “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably.

  2. This way of describing objectivism is itself not uncontroversial, however (see Putnam 1987).

  3. Whether this falsehood is supposed to be a contingent or necessary matter is not entirely clear in Mackie (1977).

  4. Thomas Nagel, an ethical objectivist (see Nagel 1997) argues that there may be situations where various moral values are incommensurate, and there is decisive support for two or more incompatible courses of action (Nagel 1979). Although we may look for a “single scale on which all these apparently disparate considerations can be measured, added, and balanced” (Nagel 1979, p.131), there may be no such scale.

  5. A note about our use of the term “belief”: although it is the standard philosophical position, we do not intend the term “belief” to imply that a person assents to the truth of the proposition they believe (see e.g., Lacey 1996)—that would presuppose an answer to the question we want to investigate. Rather, we intend a weaker, more psychological reading of the term belief, which denotes an attitude of agreement or assent, without a further commitment to truth (see e.g., Reber 1996).

  6. Although see Gill (2008, 2009) for philosophical critique of this uniformity assumption, and for a defense of meta-ethical variability.

  7. Note, however, that other arguments exist which call into question whether harm is the fundamental basis of morality (see e.g., Kelly et al. 2007).

  8. We thank Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for this point. Gert (2005, p. 322) makes the point, which we agree with, that the terms “morally good” and “morally right” tend to refer to different kinds of action, whereas “morally bad” and “morally wrong” are used more interchangeably. We interpret this point as counting in favor of our valence hypothesis regarding negative moral actions—it suggests to us that there will not be a substantial difference in judgments of objectivity regarding the categories morally bad and morally wrong. Gert himself, however, takes wrongness to be a more objective property than badness (see p. 325). For positive moral actions, Gert’s point about the non- interchangeability between the terms “good” and “right” suggests that in order to clearly test whether goodness is considered less objective than rightness, these moral properties may need to be predicated of different actions.

  9. A further possible explanation of our finding, suggested by an anonymous reviewer, is that people may think that it is more likely that people would do morally good (or right) things for the wrong reasons, than that they would do morally bad (or wrong) things for the right reasons. This is an intriguing possibility, and worth investigating.

  10. In this game, participants are first divided into pairs. One participant is given a small sum of money (say $10), and makes an offer to the other participant which that person has the choice either to accept or reject.

  11. Consistent with this interpretation, some theorists have argued that the law has an ‘expressive’ function, by which it signals the social values of a society, particularly in cases where existing norms about a particular behavior are weak or undecided (e.g., Lessig 1996; Sunstein 1996).

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Acknowledgements

We thank Adam Alter, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Goodwin, G.P., Darley, J.M. The Perceived Objectivity of Ethical Beliefs: Psychological Findings and Implications for Public Policy. Rev.Phil.Psych. 1, 161–188 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-009-0013-4

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Keywords

  • Moral Judgment
  • Moral Belief
  • Vote Behavior
  • Moral Emotion
  • Moral Intuition