A Person-Centered Approach to Moral Judgment

Academics Eric Luis Uhlmann, David A. Pizarro, and Daniel Diermeier publish in 2015:

* There is a growing body of evidence that individuals are fundamentally motivated to evaluate others on a moral dimension—people quickly and easily attribute morally
good or bad traits to others, and they often do so early in an interaction and with limited information… we outline a person-centered account of moral judgment (see also Pizarro & Tannenbaum, 2011), arguing that current act-based theories in moral psychology provide an incomplete account of moral judgment to the extent that they do not include the fundamental human motivation to determine the moral character of others. Simply stated, when making moral evaluations, it appears as if individuals are often not asking themselves the question “is this act right or wrong?” but rather are asking themselves “is this person good or bad?”

* we argue that (a) individuals are motivated to assess the character of others and not just the rightness or wrongness of an act; (b) some acts are perceived as more informative of an individual’s moral character than others and are, therefore, weighed heavily in moral judgments; (c) moral evaluations of acts and character can diverge, resulting in act–person dissociations; (d) judgments of moral character can infuse a host of other judgments that are central to moral evaluations (e.g., judgments of intentionality, agency, and blame); and (e) a number of recent empirical findings demonstrating apparent inconsistencies in moral judgment may be better interpreted as reasonable for an individual motivated to assess the character of an agent rather than as simple “errors” of moral judgment.

* evaluating others on the dimensions of trustworthiness and warmth is something that individuals do almost immediately. Individuals seek information about the moral traits of others through the exchange of social gossip and by looking for emotional signals and patterns of behavior that may indicate the presence of positive or negative underlying traits.

* Cues that a person possesses a stable set of traits regarding personal integrity (i.e., trustworthiness and fair treatment of others; Walker & Hennig, 2004) are of value because they suggest that a person can be relied on to act cooperatively in the future. A lack of trustworthiness suggests that a person will defect in joint endeavors when it suits his or her self-interest, and unfair treatment suggests that he or she will not divide resources equitably. Likewise, the sorts of emotional reactions that seem to indicate care and concern (such as empathic reactions) may be seen as valuable indicators that a person is genuinely motivated toward prosocial action (and would feel constraint against harming others).
There is support that these empathic traits may, in fact, serve as reliable indicators of future behavior—deficits in empathy are a hallmark of antisocial tendencies, and avoiding individuals with such tendencies is obviously beneficial…

* An example of a seemingly small misdeed that is nonetheless taken as highly informative about an individual’s moral character is that of a corporate executive
who spends money on what are perceived to be frivolous perks, such as private planes, luxury cars, and country club memberships. Such perks are often met with a
high degree of outrage and public condemnation despite the fact that they represent a small proportion of expenditures relative to high corporate salaries more generally. A recent study demonstrated that this response likely occurs because individuals who request perks are assumed to possess a broader number of negative moral traits.

* There are cases when an act that causes comparatively less harm is viewed as more diagnostic about an agent’s underlying character because of the informational value that it provides. In the United States, there are strongly held norms holding that treating individuals poorly on the basis of their ethnicity is not justified. Acts of racial bigotry speak strongly to an agent’s moral character and can influence judgments of blame out of proportion to the actual harm caused. In a relevant empirical investigation, participants read about either a bigoted manager who mistreated only Black employees or a misanthropic manager who mistreated all of his employees. Even though he harmed far fewer people, participants viewed the bigoted manager’s behavior as more informative about his character.

* experiments demonstrate a dissociation between judgments of acts and judgments of character. Participants judged referring to a coworker as a “nigger” as a less immoral act than physically assaulting the coworker. However, using the racial slur was seen as more indicative of poor global moral character. It is noteworthy that participants drew very negative character inferences about the bigoted agent even though his behavior had no direct victim, in that he muttered the racial slur under his breath and no one heard him. Further, even though they rated him as having committed the less immoral act, participants were less willing to be friends with the bigoted coworker than with the physically aggressive coworker…

* Another rich cue that serves as information that an individual possesses poor moral character is whether the person appears to actively take pleasure in the suffering of others. Signals regarding the hedonic experience of agents as they carry out moral transgressions are viewed as deeply informative about an individual’s moral character.

* According to the person-centered account of moral judgment, human beings are intuitive virtue theorists who view acts as signals of underlying moral traits, such as integrity and empathy for others. Relatively harmless actions high in informational value regarding character are therefore weighed heavily in moral judgments. Indeed, striking dissociations emerge between moral evaluations of acts and the persons who carry them out, such that some acts speak strongly to moral character despite not being condemned as especially harmful or immoral in-and-of-themselves. Many putative biases and errors of moral judgment may be the products of a moral system designed to determine the character of others. It is time for psychological theories of moral judgment to rediscover Hume’s insight that although acts are fleeting, the lasting qualities of moral character are to be treasured and cherished.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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