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If you put chimpanzees from different communities together you can expect mayhem - they are not keen on treating each other nicely. There is closely related species of apes, however, whose members have countless encounters with unrelated specimen on a daily basis and yet almost all get through the day in one piece - that species is us, homo sapiens. But what makes us get along, most of the time?
The first message of Fargas, Jussim, and Van Lange, the editors of this collection of essays on the social psychology of morality, is that we get along because we have the ability to think and act in terms of overarching moral rules; an ability they regard as one "defining hallmark[s] of our species", so much that we might as well be called "homo moralis," the moral man (1). Their second message is that social psychology occupies a "pivotal role" and a "privileged position" when it comes to understanding morality because the foundations of morality are based on "predominantly social concerns", such as fairness or loyalty (2). Their aim is to provide an "informative and interesting" overview of the current status of this "fascinating area of inquiry" (2, 16).
Morality as such is, perhaps surprisingly, not a mainstream research topic in social psychology. Most textbooks in the field do not even mention the term morality at all (and focus on 'prosociality' instead). This relative lack of 'coverage' might have to do with the difficulty of operationalising 'morality' in a fitting way (more on this below). However, morality certainly is a social phenomenon and therefore the collection of Fargas, Jussim, and Van Lange is certainly a step in the right direction; it offers an extensive overview of the field and is suggestive of the vast potential of studying morality through the lens of social psychology.
In the introduction, the editors provide useful background information about current social psychological perspectives on morality as well as brief summaries of the seventeen essays contained in the volume. The contributed essays are aimed at an academic, specialist audience and presuppose knowledge of technical terms from social psychology and, in some articles, a basic understanding of statistics. They are grouped under four headings: 'The Nature of Moral Values and Decisions,' 'Moral Aspects of Interpersonal Behaviour,' 'Ironic and Paradoxical Effects of Morality,' and finally 'Morality and Collective Behaviour.' Given the generality of these themes, the groupings are mostly justified but not very informative. For example, all chapters somehow relate to the 'Nature of Moral Values and Decisions' and obviously, this being social psychology, to the 'Moral Aspects of Interpersonal Behaviour' and to 'Morality and Collective Behaviour.' Aside from that, speaking about 'Ironic and Paradoxical Effects of Morality' suggests that chapters under this heading contain normative claims about certain outcomes being 'immoral,' 'ironic' or 'paradoxical,' which none of the essays actually does.
However, all chapters share a methodological commitment to study morality descriptively; that is, none tells you what you should do but rather how and why people like you behave, feel, or think about moral matters in social contexts in such-and-such ways. Most chapters address either of two major themes.
The first is the study of the influencing factors on overt moral behavior. Gawronski et al. use experimental designs based on the trolley-dilemma to examine how individual's action tendencies affect decisions in moral dilemmas ('Understanding Responses to Moral Dilemmas'). Simpson et al. lay the conceptual groundwork to study the interpersonal influences on moral behaviour by proposing testable hypotheses about the determinants of moral intuitions in intimate relationships ('A Relational Perspective of Social Influence on Moral Issues'). Galinsky & Lee review existing experimental findings of the contextual influences on decisions in economic games, arguing that perspective-taking in competitive contexts with conflicting interests leads to 'unethical' behaviour ('When Perspective Takers Turn Unethical'). Forgas studies outcomes in games from experimental economics, like the ultimatum or the dictator game, and shows persuasively that subjects induced with negative moods show less selfish behaviour, measured by the amount of resources they share with others ('Affective Influences on Moral Decisions'). Graziano & Schroeder speculate about possible determinants of prosociality ('Sin, Morality, and Opponent Motives for Prosocial Behavior'). Crockett presents a computational model of moral decisions, based on experiments with economic games, which models moral decisions on three parameters ('Computational Modeling of Moral Decisions'). Von Hippel et al. focus the determinants of leadership styles in groups and argue, based on a review of ethnographic and sociobiological findings, that the presence of inequality within a group leads to 'immoral' leadership styles ('Of Baboons and Elephants').
The second theme is the study of the origins and correlational determinants of covert moral rules. Laham & Corless employ exploratory factor analysis to determine the influence of threat-sensitivity on neuroticism, a personality trait often reported to influence the moral and political values of individuals ('Threat, Morality, and Politics'). Brandt et al. review existing studies and discuss the relation of self-concepts on moral convictions ('Moralization and Intolerance of Ideological Outgroups'). Psyzczynski argues that the origins of moral rules can be partly explained by terror-management theory ('God Save Us'). Firmer assesses how groups create moral idols to motivate and navigate the members of the group; an exemplary case of the pragmatic utility of adopting a moral system ('Groups Create Moral Superheroes to Defend Sacred Values'). Miller & Monin offer a fine conceptual analysis of two separate motivations to adhere to moral rules ('Moral Opportunities Versus Moral Tests').
The remaining contributions do not fit the two major themes: Cooper presents own experimental data and explains how social-psychological factors can lead people to confess to immoral acts – warning us that people can be lead to make self-incriminating confessions even if the stakes are very high ('Confessing To An Immoral Act'). Jussim et al. review research findings on controversial, normatively 'loaded' topics, like research on sex differences, and persuasively argue that moral rules can bias researchers in interpreting their findings ('Can High Moral Purposes Undermine Scientific Integrity?'). Fiedler takes the conduct of researchers in response to what he deems "haphazard standards and instructions" (218) about good scientific conduct as a test case for the explanatory power of Kohlberg's moral rationalism (cf. Kohlber & Hersh 1977) and Moral Foundations Theory (cf. Graham et al. 2013), arguing that neither fares very well in explaining this case ('Ethical Norms and Moral Values'). Haslam similarly applies social psychology on a meta-level as an explanation of what he calls 'concept creep': his review of the use of concepts like 'abuse' or 'bullying' shows that they are applied more phenomena and to milder instances of their original referents, which he explains in terms of an expansion of the 'moral circle' and an increased sensitivity to harm ('Concept Creep'). Bastian & Crimston assess what leads people to assign moral values to resources and infer practical implications of this manifest tendency ('The Moral Psychology of Resource Use').
Naturally, each of the seventeen individual chapters offers more than what I could briefly summarise here. Taken together, they form an impressive showcase of the manifold of topics related to morality that is now being approached, in a nuanced manner, with the tools of social psychology. Below I register a general concern about this approach and then highlight a contribution that exemplifies this error, as well as one that stands out for being exceptionally insightful and suggestive of further research.
My general concern is the menacing problem of operationalising what counts as moral when studying behaviour, convictions, or action-guiding rules. In short, we need to be careful about what we end up studying when we ask about moral behaviour and the variety of dissimilar, and thus potentially problematic, operationalisations of the concept found in this volume counsel caution about premature optimism. For instance, the seven essays that address influences on overt moral behaviour work with four different operationalisations of morality. 'Morality' is taken to be about actions or decisions taken in scenarios that involve bodily harm to other people (e.g. in the trolley dilemma); about selfish vs. unselfish behaviour in economic games, where keeping resources to yourself is dubbed 'selfish'; about group-serving vs. 'self-serving' behaviour in groups, where it is not clear what either concept amounts to; and finally about prosociality, understood as actions valued by others.
I have no qualms with counting considerations about harm as moral. However, why think that keeping all the money that you receive in a dictator game (where you are given, say, 10€ and are free to decide how much to give to someone else) is immoral? It is selfish, sure, but drawing valid conclusions about moral behaviour depends on whether we agree, on normative grounds, that we have a moral obligation to share almost unconditionally. Hence, it is certainly a challenge for those interested in research on morality to find out how empirically investigate morality, the real deal, and not just a masked version of, say, pro-sociality.
The problem with unclear terms is evident in the contribution of Galinsky and Lee. They argue that perspective taking (e.g. imagining the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of another person) can lead to "unethical" behaviour in competitive contexts (133). What they find is, roughly, that subjects who gauge the competitive intentions of their competitors are more likely to behave themselves competitively, too. What is 'unethical' about that? Galinsky and Lee do not seem to be quite sure either, and so they describe the apparent "immoral" (127) behaviour also in less-loaded terms such as "egoistically" (127), "selfish" (131), or "antisocial" (134). Arguably, however, something being 'antisocial,' understood along the lines of 'not welcome by other people', is quite different from being 'unethical' - particularly in competitive contexts. After all, everyone strives to do things unwelcome to their opponents, but few strive to behave unethically.
Moreover, even if we agree that perspective taking sometimes leads to unethical behaviour, that finding should not be surprising at all. The authors seem to be fighting a straw-men who, mistakenly, suggests that perspective taking always leads to moral behaviour, or, worse still, that perspective-taking is morally good in itself. But perspective taking in itself is normatively neutral: if you see a person with a face-mask and a knife entering a shop, you might gauge the criminal intentions and call the police or you might run away. But what is or isn't ethical in that situation is what you do after you 'took the perspective' of the would-be robber. Surely the authors would agree; and since they do not show that anyone actually believes that perspective taking itself is a "royal road to morality," their main claim is rather blunt (126).
In contrast, a contribution that struck me as exceptionally insightful and relevant is by Gawronski et al. Their findings challenge a widely held view about the determinants of utilitarian (outcome-based) and deontological (norm-based) decisions through careful consideration of the operationalisations used in experimental designs. They use an experimental design to study responses to the trolley dilemma: a trolley is on track to five number of people standing on the track and respondents have to decide about diverting the trolley to another track on which it would kill only one person (there are multiple variations of this basic scenario). Usually, switching tracks, that is killing one instead of five, is interpreted as making a 'utilitarian,' outcome-based decision. Not switching is taken to be a deontological decision, because, the reasoning goes, subjects judge that switching tracks would be akin to killing, which is proscribed by forceful norms. Many findings suggested that cognitive load, for instance having to memorise numbers during the task, increased the proportion of deontological judgements in trolley cases, which is part of the evidence for the claim that characteristically deontological judgements are based on emotional processes (e.g. Green 2008). However, Gawronski et al. included a check for general action tendencies (that is, whether subjects prefer to act or stay passive) in their experiments and found that a tendency for inaction often explained decisions that other researchers attributed to a preference for deontological moral judgements. In contrast to that, Gawronski et al. show that "limited cognitive resources influence moral judgements by inducing a general preference for inaction … rather than by disrupting utilitarian assessments of outcomes or deontological assessments of norm violations" (105), which should give some food for thought to fans of 'trolleyology.'
In conclusion: the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in empirical approaches to studying morality and for those who want to get an impression of the breadth of recent social psychological research on the matter. All chapters reward the reader with interesting insights, based both on new empirical data and novel reviews of existing findings. And while the problems mentioned above suggest that we should not be satisfied yet with social psychology assuming its role as "the core discipline for understanding morality," the editors certainly achieved their goal of showcasing the current status of social psychological research as "a thriving and productive field of inquiry" (16).
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© 2016 Michael Klenk
Michael Klenk, Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.