Exposure to moral relativism compromises moral behavior

ArticleinJournal of Experimental Social Psychology 49(6):995–1001 · November 2013with490 Reads
DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.06.008
Abstract
Across two studies we investigated the relationship between moral relativism versus absolutism and moral behavior. In Experiment 1, we found that participants who read a relativist argument for tolerating female genital mutilation were more likely to cheat to win an incentivized raffle than participants who read an absolutist argument against female genital mutilation, or those in a control condition. In Experiment 2, participants who read a definition of morality phrased in absolutist terms expressed less willingness to engage in petty theft than those who read a definition of morality phrased in relativist terms, or those in a control condition. Experiment 2 also provided evidence that effects were not due to absolutist arguments signaling that fewer behaviors are morally permissible, nor to relativist arguments defending more disagreeable moral positions. Rather, the content of the philosophical positions themselves—the fact that relativism describes morality as subjective and culturally-historically contingent, whereas absolutism describes morality as objective and universal—makes individuals more likely to engage in immoral behaviors when exposed to moral relativism compared to moral absolutism.

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  • ... Moreover, ethical idealism with regard to driving can be fostered by including messages that explicitly describe the respective traffic situations in moral terms, by highlighting the fundamental moral principle of avoiding harm, a principle that should govern human interactions. Research in other fields has shown that using such a moral frame and morality arguments can override individual variations in moral convictions (Rai & Holyoak, 2013) and reduces counternormative behavior (Young & Durwin, 2012). ...
  • ... In one study participants primed with a realist (objectivist) ethical view were more likely to donate to charity than those who were primed with anti-realist (subjectivist) views [23]. Similarly, those who are primed with the meta-ethical view of moral subjectivism were likelier to cheat than those primed with moral realism [24]. Thus there are reasons to hold that being a moral subjectivist negatively affects behaviour. ...
  • ... Finally, although we focused on loyalty, authority, and purity, the logic of our arguments suggests that any form of morality can be incorporated into the self. This leaves the door open for developing identity measures based on other facets of morality, such as absolutism/relativism, work ethic, moral integrity, moral reasoning capacity, or any other trait that might be moralized ( Baker, 2005;Hunter, 1991;Lovett et al., 2012;Narvaez, 2008;Rai and Holyoak, 2013;Schlenker, 2008). A number of scholars have called for work in developing moral identity measures, a recommendation we fully endorse ( Hardy and Carlo, 2011;Jennings et al., 2015). ...
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