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Moral psychology is a field of study in both philosophy and psychology. Some use the term "moral psychology" relatively narrowly to refer to the study of moral development.[1] However, others tend to use the term more broadly to include any topics at the intersection of ethics and psychology and philosophy of mind.[2] Some of the main topics of the field are moral judgment, moral reasoning, moral responsibility, moral development, moral character (especially as related to virtue ethics), altruism, psychological egoism, moral luck, and moral disagreement.[3]

Moral Psychology is a novel branch within the field of Psychology. The study of moral identity is one aspect of psychology that shows the most potential for growth due to the numerous sections within the field regarding its structure, mechanisms, and dynamics.[4] A moral act is a type of behavior that refers to an act that has either a moral or immoral consequence. Moral Psychology can be applied across a broad range of studies, including philosophy and psychology. However it is implemented in different ways depending on culture. In many cultures, a moral act refers to an act that entails free will, purity, liberty, honesty, and meaning. An immoral act refers to an act that entails corruption and fraudulence and usually leads to negative consequences. Some of the main topics of the field are moral judgment, moral reasoning, moral responsibility, moral development, moral character, altruism, psychological egoism, moral luck, moral disagreement, moral psychology, moral action, moral forecasting, emotion, and affective forecasting.[5]

Some psychologists that have worked in the field are Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Elliot Turiel, Jonathan Haidt, Linda Skitka, Marc Hauser, C. Daniel Batson, Joshua D. Greene, A. Peter McGraw, Philip Tetlock, and Liane Young. Some philosophers that have worked in the field are Stephen Stich, John Doris, Joshua Knobe, John Mikhail, Shaun Nichols, Thomas Nagel, Robert C. Roberts, Jesse Prinz, Michael Smith, and R. Jay Wallace.


Moral Psychology began with early philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. They believed that “to know the good is to do the good.” They analyzed the ways in which people make decisions with regards to moral identity. The battle of good versus evil has been studied since the time moral psychology became accepted as a formal branch of psychology/philosophy up until the present and it continues to expand. As the field of psychology began to divide away from philosophy, moral psychology expanded to include risk perception and moralization, morality with regards to medical practices, concepts of self-worth, and the role of emotions when analyzing one’s moral identity. In most introductory psychology courses, students learn about moral psychology by studying the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who introduced the cognitive developmental theory in 1969. This theory emphasized that sound moral reasoning would innately motivate moral action. Psychologists Hardy and Carlo elaborated on this theory by providing a greater understanding of moral motivation and commitment. Today, psychologists and students alike rely on Blasi’s self-model that link ideas of moral judgment and action. This model illustrates that in order to predict moral behavior, one must first examine the moral judgments. A moral judgment can become a moral action by not only being moral, but by also being something the individual is responsible for doing. This can only be accomplished when a person’s identity is centered on morality. One must possess the desire to live a lifestyle that is constant with one’s sense of self. Of course individual differences prohibit some from achieving a moral identity. However, those who are motivated will attain a unique moral identity [4]


Historically, early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato engaged in both empirical research and a priori conceptual analysis about the ways in which people make decisions about issues that raise moral concerns. Moral psychological issues have been central theoretical issues explored by philosophers from the early days of the profession right up until the present. With the development of psychology as a discipline separate from philosophy, it was natural for psychologists to continue pursuing work in moral psychology, and much of the empirical research of the 20th century in this area was completed by academics working in psychology departments.

Today moral psychology is a thriving area of research in both philosophy and psychology, even at an interdisciplinary level.[6] For example, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg questioned boys and young men about their thought processes when they were faced with a moral dilemma,[citation needed] producing one of many very useful empirical studies in the area of moral psychology. As another example, the philosopher Joshua Knobe recently completed an empirical study on how the way in which an ethical problem is phrased dramatically affects an individual's intuitions about the proper moral response to the problem.[citation needed] More conceptually focused research has been completed by researchers such as John Doris. Doris (2002) discusses the way in which social psychological experiments---such as the Stanford Prison Experiments involving the idea of situationism---call into question a key component in virtue ethics: the idea that individuals have a single, environment-independent moral character. As a further example, Shaun Nichols (2004) examines how empirical data on psychopathology suggests that moral rationalism is false.

Contemporary Thought of "it" Theories

Recent attempts to develop an integrated model of moral motivation[7] have identified at least six different levels of moral functioning, each of which has been shown to predict some type of moral or prosocial behavior: moral intuitions, moral emotions, moral virtues/vices (behavioral capacities), moral values, moral reasoning, and moral willpower. This Social Intuitionist model of moral motivation[8] suggests that moral behaviors are typically the product of multiple levels of moral functioning, and are usually energized by the "hotter" levels of intuition, emotion, and behavioral virtue/vice. The "cooler" levels of values, reasoning, and willpower, while still important, are proposed to be secondary to the more affect-intensive processes.

The "Moral Foundations Theory" of psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines the way morality varies between cultures and identifies five fundamental moral values shared to a greater or lesser degree by different societies and individuals.[9] According to Haidt, these are: care for others, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.[10] Haidt's book for the general reader The Happiness Hypothesis looks at the ways in which contemporary psychology casts light on the moral ideas of the past. On the other hand, in a recent conference, Haidt expressed views that may suggest he does not support a science of morality.[11]

Moral Identity

A study was conducted by Anne Colby and William Damon regarding the lives of individuals who exhibit extraordinary moral commitment. This article suggests that one's moral identity is formed through that individual's synchronization of their personal and moral goals. Colby and Damon studied moral identity through the narratives of Virginia Foster Durr and Suzie Valadez, whose behavior, actions, and life's work was considered to be morally exemplary by their communities and those with whom they came in contact. The author describes these exemplars as maintaining a “unity between self and morality” (pg. 362). The research suggests that a "transformation of goals" takes place during the evolution of one's moral identity and development and therefore is not an exercise of self-sacrifice but rather one done with great joy. This transformation is not always a deliberate process, but can be described as a developmental process that takes place in ones personal beliefs, affecting their conduct. Transformation is most often a gradual process, but can also be rapidly set of by a "triggering event", or "sudden, unexpected occurrences that create powerful emotional responses the 'trigger' a reexamination of one's life choices" (pg. 354). Triggering events can be anything from a powerful moment in a movie, to a traumatic life event, or as portrayed in the case of Suzie Valadez, the perception of a vision from God. This transformation is brought about by powerful social interactions that will gradually change and shape the persons goals. Moral exemplars are said to have the same concerns and commitments as other moral people but to a greater degree, "extensions in scope, intensity and breadth" (pg. 364). Furthermore, exemplars possess the ability to be open to new ideas and experiences, also known as an "active receptiveness" (pg. 350) to things exterior to themselves. Using this active receptiveness, a relatively average person can experience a transformation of goals and become an exemplary figure over time.[12]

According to Blasi’s theory on moral character, he stated that moral character is identified by the person’s set of the morality of virtues and vices.He theorized willpower, moral desires, and integrity have the capability for a person to act morally by the hierarchical order of virtues.He believed that the “highest” and complex of virtues are expressed by the concept of willpower while the “lowest” and simplistic of virtues are expressed by the concept of integrity.The will as desire is expressed as the wanting to “move forward” towards the virtue whereas the will of self-control is the wanting to “move backward” from the vice. Thus will as desire is the moral desire that contains the moral characters’ virtues and vices.[13]

Theoretical and empirical studies in the past had been focused that moral emotion and reasoning was the source of moral motivation. But recent models of morality placed that identity is the source of moral motivation. Empirical studies on moral exemplars have shown that moral identity has been developed through moral action while theoretical studies have shown that moral identity was developed through the concepts of moral cognition, moral reasoning, and moral functioning. Not much information is fully decided due to people expressing a limited selection of moral behaviors to express as a part of their identity.[14]

Moral Values

Kristiansen and Hotte review many research articles regarding people's values and attitudes and whether or not they guide behavior. With the research they reviewed and their own extension of Ajzen and Fishbein's theory of reasoned action, they conclude that value-attitude-behavior depends on the individual and their moral reasoning.

Another issue that Kristiansen and Hotte discovered through their research was that individuals tended to "create" values to justify their reactions to certain situations. Or in other words they used values as a "post-hoc justification of their attitudes (emotions) and behaviors". Kristiansen and Hotte call this phenomenon the "Value Justification Hypothesis". The authors use an example from Faludi's journal entry of how during the period when women were fighting for their right to vote a New Rights group appealed to society's ideals of "traditional family values" as an argument against the new law in order to mask their own "anger at women's rising independence." Another theory that this can be equated to is Jonathan Haidt's "Social Intuition Theory" where individual's justify their intuitive emotions and actions through reasoning in a post-hoc fashion.

Moral Virtues

Morality as virtues suggests that the morality of a person depends on the traits and temperaments that he or she possesses and values. Lapsley and Narvaez suggest in their paper, A Social-Cognitive Approach to Moral Personality, that our moral values and actions are controlled by a set of schemas, cognititve structures that organize related concepts and integrate past events, that we have created in our minds. They claim that schemas are "fundamental to our very ability to notice dilemmas as we appraise the moral landscape" (pg. 197). As we add to our schemas through knowledge and experience, we deliberately shape our view of morality. This idea fits in with Kohlberg's idea that moral reasoning is what governs our action. Over time, Lapsley and Narvaez suggest that over time, we become "moral experts". In gaining this moral expertise, we align our goals to our moral self, seek out and gain new knowledge of what it is to be moral, and develop highly practiced behavioral routines, all for the ultimate goal of acting out what it means to be a moral person.

Robert A. Emmons theorizes that gratitude is the greatest of virtues. Gratitude is an emotion as well, but it becomes a virtue when it is frequently enacted across several situations. Its main function is to promote social relationships by establishing firm interpersonal ties amongst the members of a society through a system of reciprocity. This system of reciprocity had previously been looked at in terms of indebtedness responses, but Emmons argues that gratitude plays a strong role and is even more strongly associated with an inclination for future altruism than indebtedness.[15]

Moral Reasoning

In the history of moral psychology, there is perhaps no more central figure than Lawrence Kohlberg. His cognitive developmental theory of moral reasoning dominated the field for decades. Briefly stated, he argued that moral development is best thought of as one's progression in their capacity to reason morally about various moral dilemmas or conflicts of interest (The most widely known moral scenario used in his research is usually referred to as the Heinz dilemma). Kohlberg suggested that children begin by reasoning about such dilemmas ...

Kohlberg developed six stages that a child will go through using a story called "Heinz steals the drug." In the story Heinz's wife is dying of cancer and the towns druggist has something that can help her but is charging more than Heinz can afford so Heinz steals the drug to save his wife's life. Children aged 10, 13, and 16 years old were asked if what Heinz did was okay. In the story children go from stage one, where they start to recognize higher authorities and that there are set rules and punishments for breaking those rules; to stage six, where good principles make a good society. They also start to define which of the principles are most agreeable and fair.[16] According to Kohlberg, an individual is considered more cognitively mature depending on their stage of moral reasoning. Kohlberg believes, and has found through empirical evidence, that individual's stages of moral reasoning will grow as they grow in both education and world experience. One of the examples that Kohlberg gives is called "Cognitive-moral conflict" wherein an individual who is currently in one stage of moral reasoning has their beliefs challenged by a surrounding peer group. Through this challenge of beliefs the individual engages in "reflective reorganization" which allows for movement to a new stage to occur.

Despite the influence of Kohlberg, his views did not come without criticism and critique. Previous moral development scales, particularly Kohlberg’s, believe that moral reasoning is dominated by one main perspective: justice. However, Gilligan and Attanucci argue that there is an alternative to this approach known as the care perspective.[17] The justice view deals with problems of inequality and oppression with equal rights and respect for all, whereas the care perspective deals with attachment to others. Both are unique experiences found within human development and experiences. Gilligan and Attanucci analyzed male and female responses to moral situations using content analysis to identify their moral considerations. Overall the study found that a majority of participants do represent both care and justice in their moral orientations. In addition individuals particularly focused in one groups, with men using the justice view significantly more and women care.[17] This is significant as it illustrates that females are prone to view moral situations is a way that previous research did not account for and overlooked. Solely looking at justice when determining moral development may not be appropriate for both genders.

This research is not undermining the importance of justice, nor is it lifting the care values to be a necessary and beneficial aspect or moral reasoning. Instead it is suggesting that there are different ways of analyzing moral judgment for men and women that previous research did not take into account.

Moral Willpower

Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) research the idea of willpower in regards to the delay of gratification paradigm. They propose a hot/cool system in which one can control one's emotions while still being driven by impulses. The hot system is referred to as the "go" system whereas the cool system is referred to as the "know" system. The different systems being triggered decide how one reacts to different stimuli being presented.

Baumeister, Miller and Delaney (2005) state that “[t]he self can free its actions from being determined by particular influences, especially those of which it is aware.” (p. 68) Consciousness equips an individual with the ability to override instinctual reactions, and because of this, rationalized decisions are much less predictable. But there is a substantial cost in resisting these natural reactions and promoting moral ones. Research has shown that self-control, or willpower, works like a "moral muscle" whose strength may be depleted, conserved, or replenished.[18] While volitional exertion reduces the ability to engage in further acts of willpower in the short term, such exertions actually improve a person's ability to exert willpower for extended periods in the long run. That is, much like a regular muscle, the "moral muscle" is susceptible to depletion when heavily exerted, but repeated exertion builds strength that makes future prolonged exertions easier.[19] Over time, the "moral muscle" may be exercised by small tasks of self-control, such as attempt to correct slouched posture, to resist desserts, or to complete challenging tasks.[18]

Moral Behavior

A study conducted by Reynolds and Ceranic identified the various contributors to moral behavior, two of which are the idea of moral judgment and moral identity. Reynolds and Ceranic identified some major limitations in these classic cognitive moral development theories. They sought to bring together the concept of moral identity and moral judgment, rather than studying them as separate contributors to moral behavior. This research suggests that moral identity and moral judgment work together and separately in order to shape moral behavior. In addition, they have researched the effects of social consensus on ones moral behavior. The study claims that depending on the level of social consensus (high vs. low) moral behaviors will require greater or lesser degrees of moral identity to motivate an individual to make a choice and endorse a behavior. Also, depending on social consensus,particular behaviors may require different levels of moral reasoning. This article seeks to demonstrate an integrated approach to examining moral identity and moral judgment as well as study the effects of social consensus on moral judgment. [20]

Moral Intuitions

In 2001, Jonathan Haidt introduced his Social Intuitionist Model which claimed that, with few exceptions, moral judgments are made based upon socially-derived intuitions. This model suggests that moral reasoning is largely post-hoc rationalizations that function to justify one's instinctual reactions.[21]

In 2008, Joshua Greene published a compilation which, in contrast to Haidt's model, suggested that fair moral reasoning does take place. Research has found that, generally speaking, individuals who answer to moral dilemmas in a consequential manner take longer to respond and show frontal-lobe activity (associated with cognitive processing). Individuals who answer to moral dilemmas in a deontological manner, however, generally answer more quickly and show brain activity in the amygdala (associated with emotional processing). This research suggests that, although intuitions largely influence morality (especially non-utilitarian moralities), individuals are still capable of fair moral reasoning.[22]

In regards to moral intuitions, researchers Haidt and Graham perform a study to research the difference between the moral foundations of political liberals and political conservatives.[23] They challenge individuals to question the legitimacy of their moral world and introduce 5 psychological foundations of morality: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Modern moral psychology concedes that “morality is about protecting individuals” and focuses primarily on issues of justice (harm/care & fairness/reciprocity) (p. 99). Their research found that “justice and related virtues…make up half of the moral world for liberals, while justice-related concerns make up only one fifth of the moral world for conservatives” (p. 99).[[23] ] Liberals value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity significantly more than the other moralities, while conservatives value all five equally. Additionally, their research illustrated social justice research and social psychology are constrained in their discussion of morality by focusing on harm and fairness. Their examination of these texts found that harm and fairness moral foundations were endorsed highly by articles, while the three other moral domains were associated more with vice than virtues because they conflicted with the harm and fairness foundations.[23] Haidt and Graham propose that in order for open discussions to take place in the political arena, liberals must recognize moral issues from a conservative perspective if they are to understand the stances of conservatives and hope to enact change. Their paper ultimately concludes with a call for tolerance between those who value different moral foundations.[23]

Moral Emotions

“One approach would be first to define morality and then to say that moral emotions are the emotions that respond to moral violations or that motivate moral behavior”.[24] There have generally been two approaches taken by philosophers to define moral emotion. The first “is to specify the formal conditions that make a moral statement (e.g., that is prescriptive, that it is universalizable, such as expedience)[25]”. This first approach is more tied to language and the definitions we give to a moral emotions. The second approach “is to specify the material conditions of a moral issue, for example, that moral rules and judgments ‘must bear on the interest or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent’ [26]”. This definition seems to be more action based. It focuses on the outcome of a moral emotion. The second definition is more preferred because it is not tied to language and therefore can be applied to prelinguistic children and animals. Moral emotions are “emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent.” ([27])

There is a debate whether there is a set of basic emotions or if there are “scripts or set of components that can be mixed and matched, allowing for a very large number of possible emotions”.[28] Even those arguing for a basic set acknowledge that there are variants of each emotion. Ekman (1992) calls these variants “families”. “The principal moral emotions can be divided into two large and two small joint families. The large families are the ‘other-condemning’ family, in which the three brothers are contempt, anger, and disgust (and their many children, such as indignation and loathing), and the ‘self-conscious’ family (shame embarrassment, and guilt)…[T]he two smaller families the ‘other-suffering’ family (compassion) and the ‘other-praising’ family (gratitude and elevation)”.[29]

Jonathan Haidt argues that the studies of moral reasoning in moral psychology have done very little to determine what it is that leads us to action. He criticizes the field's avoidance of emotion and believes that it is emotion that drives us to act. As Haidt would suggest, the higher the emotionality of a moral agent the more likely they are to act morally. He also uses the term "disinterested elicitor" to describe someone who is less concerned with the self, and more concerned about the well being of things exterior to him or herself. Haidt suggests that society is made up of these disinterested elicitors and that each person's pro-social action tendency is determined by his or her degree of emotionality. Haidt uses Ekman's idea of "emotion families" and builds a scale of emotionality, from low to high. Combining this scale with self-interested vs. disinterested, and you find a likelihood to act. If a person works on a low level of emotion and has self-interested emotions, such as sad/happy, they are unlikely to act. If the moral agent possesses a high emotionality and operates as a disinterested elicitor with emotions such as elevation, they are much more likely to be morally altruistic.

Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw conducted experiments where they manipulated people through the use of empathy-induced altruism to make decisions that required them to show partiality to one individual over another. Those individuals who they successfully manipulated reported that despite feeling compelled in the moment to show partiality they still felt they had made the more "immoral" decision since they followed a care emotion rather than adhering to a justice perspective of morality.

Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw conducted two experiments on empathy-induced altruism proposing that this can lead to actions that violate the justice principle. The results showed that empathy-induced altruism and acting in accordance to the justice principle are independent of one another. They sometimes go hand in hand and sometimes conflict with one another.

Moral Conviction

One of the main questions within the psychological study of morality is the issue of what qualitatively distinguishes moral attitudes from non-moral attitudes. Linda Skitka and colleagues have introduced the concept of moral conviction, which refers to a “strong and absolute belief that something is right or wrong, moral or immoral."[30] According to Skitka’s Integrated Theory of Moral Conviction (ITMC), attitudes held with moral conviction, known as moral mandates, differ from strong but non-moral attitudes in a number of important ways. Namely, moral mandates derive their motivational force from their perceived universality, perceived objectivity, and strong ties to emotion.[31] Perceived universality refers to the notion that individuals experience moral mandates as transcending persons and cultures; additionally, they are regarded as matters of fact. Regarding association with emotion, ITMC is consistent with Jonathan Haidt's Social Intuitionist Model in stating that moral judgments are accompanied by discrete moral emotions (i.e., disgust, shame, guilt). Importantly, Skitka maintains that moral mandates are not the same thing as moral values. Whether or not an issue will be associated with moral conviction varies across persons.

One of the main lines of IMTC research addresses the behavioral implications of moral mandates. Individuals prefer greater social and physical distance from attitudinally dissimilar others when moral conviction was high. Importantly, this effect of moral conviction could not be explained by traditional measures of attitude strength, extremity, or centrality. Skitka, Bauman, and Sargis placed participants in either attitudinally heterogeneous or homogenous groups to discuss procedures regarding two morally mandated issues, abortion and capital punishment. Those in attitudinally heterogeneous groups demonstrated the least amount of goodwill towards other group members, the least amount of cooperation, and the most tension/defensiveness. Furthermore, individuals discussing a morally-mandated issue were less likely to reach a consensus, compared to those discussing non-moral issues.[32]

Cultural Values

Morality didn’t arise from individual choice but from a collection of human decisions to try and create a structure while living together. Constraints by their environments and natural human desires influenced these decisions. The evolution of human social instincts overlap with the evolution of culture. Cultural morality has provided a way of managing conflict. Cultural morality requires behavior that is cooperative and considerate of others, it discourages potentially unhealthy self-interest, and encourages other-regarding emotions beneficial in society. Furthermore, it can provide an outlet of self-interest motivations in other-regarding actions.[33]

Schwartz (1992) studies how value priorities are affected by contextual social experiences across varying cultures. In particular, Schwartz has identified 10 value types that are prevalent in nearly all cultures: Self-Direction (independent thought and action), Stimulation (pursuit of variety), Hedonism (pleasure and satisfaction), Achievement (success according to social standards), Power (status and dominance), Security (stability and peace), Conformity (maintaining the social status quo), Tradition (sharing social experiences), Benevolence (concern for the welfare of immediate persons), and Universalism (welfare for all people and nature). Among these ten value types, Schwartz identifies fifty-six universally-valued qualities (whose importance and value-type classification are culture-specific). This research laid the groundwork for conducting culture-specific moral phenomena in the future.[34]

Additionally, Schwartz also conducted a study on cultural values, defining cultural values as “conceptions of the desirable that guide the way social actors (e.g. organizational leaders, policy-makers, individual person) select actions, evaluate people and events, and explain their actions and evaluations” (p. 24) ([35]). To infer national value priorities, individual values within 49 nations were aggregated to represent overall themes of the broader nation. Schwartz selected 7 value types based on societal issues. The opposing value dimensions were: Autonomy vs. Conservatism, Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism, and Mastery vs. Harmony. The current study examined a dominant social group within the nations, studying urban school teachers within the most common school systems. Teachers are believed to play a role is value socialization, and are the “key carriers of culture,” reflecting a midrange of value priorities in society. A comparative analysis was conducted with samples of college students in each nation. The value profiles of the five nations had significant results in that not only did the students and teachers yield similar results, but similar geographic regions had similar values, illustrating a correlation between geographical proximity and shared cultural values. Schwartz proposes testable hypotheses based on this national data within areas of work including: work centrality, societal norms about work, and work goals.[35]

CAD Triad Hypothesis

Previous research on moral development has generally focused on rationality and cognitive development. Since Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, developed what is now known as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development in 1958, it has been universally accepted that moral development is driven by cognitive processes. However, recently psychologists have begun to examine the relationship between morality and emotionality. It has been widely debated among philosophers and psychologists what concepts comprise the foundation of human morality: cognition or emotion. Human social life has been evolving to incorporate both aspects of moral judgment. As technology advances and social interactions become more complicated, the definition of morality has morphed into an expanding notion that includes emotional reactions.

It is human nature to attach emotion to uncontrollable events in life in an attempt to provide meaning.[36] An emotional reaction allows humans to more accurately gauge the morality of any given situation. Many psychologists have argued that emotional reactions are the best predictors of moral judgment. In an effort to learn more about the link between morality and emotionality, anthropologist and psychologist Richard Shweder and his colleagues affirmed that there are three distinct values that cultures implement to resolve moral issues: community, autonomy, and divinity. These three principals are known as the CAD Triad Hypothesis. This theory provides an innovative way to associate emotions to moralization by emphasizing that morality not only includes reasoning, but also emotional reactions.


The moral code of community is a moral obligation to care for the community in an attempt to not violate hierarchy. According to the CAD Triad Hypothesis, it is considered a breach of morality if a person fails to carry out his or her duties within a community. In order to deem an act within the community as immoral, one must consider respect for authority, loyalty, duty, obligation, and honor.


The moral code of autonomy is a moral obligation to uphold individual freedom and to prevent the violation of personal rights. An act is considered an immoral breach of autonomy if it directly hurts another person or defies another person’s individual rights. One must think about harm, fairness, individualism, liberty, and justice.


The moral code of divinity is a moral obligation to inhibit violations against purity. An act is considered an immoral breach of divinity when a person disrespects the inviolability of God or causes impurity to himself/herself or others. One must think about sanctity, sin, and degradation.[37] Shweder expanded the CAD Triad Hypothesis by linking the three moral codes to three moral emotions. He proposed that anger connects to autonomy, contempt connects to community, and disgust connects to divinity. Moral psychologists acknowledge contempt, anger, and disgust as three logical pillars of moral emotion because they are often experienced in daily life. All three moral emotions involve condemnation of others, yet they illustrate very diverse ideas within the realm of moralization. Anger has always been viewed as a nonmoral emotion. When ones autonomy is broken, a natural human reaction is to get angry. Anger is linked to acts such as insults, transgressions, and the violation of rights against the self. We experience the feeling of disgust when people act without dignity or dignity is taken away unwillingly from others. Dignity encompasses the purity of the body, which includes maintaining control of all bodily functions such as sex, eating, and hygiene. Actions taken that somehow contaminate the body with regards to bodily functions are considered immoral and humans reaction with disgust. Research has shown that people who feel physical disgust towards an image or action will also feel an equal amount of moral disgust. This term is known as “moral hypervigilance” [38] Moral hypervigilance is specifically prominent in United States culture where people often describe immoral acts against dignity by utilizing physical characteristics. Contempt is often linked with hierarchy and community. The feeling of contempt differs from anger and disgust because although it does involve disapproval, it also entails a component of indifference. Moral superiority and contempt are often felt concerning individuals who violate the morality of the community.[37] With the help of the CAD Triad Hypothesis, people can grasp a better understanding at how important a role emotions play in moralization.

Triune Ethics Theory (TET)

Triune ethics theory attempts to highlight the importance of considering the development, purpose and function of biological systems when considering morality and moral functioning. TET proposes three ethics, security, engagement, and imagination, based on basic periods of evolutionary change.[39]


The security ethic is based in the oldest part of the brain, involving the R-complex or the extrapyrimidal action nervous system.[40] The security ethic is based around primal instincts which center on safety, survival, and thriving in an environment. The security ethic is largely biological in nature, and does not require outside influences to develop.[39]


The ethic of engagement is centered in the limbic system.[40] The limbic system allows for external and internal emotional signaling and is critical to emotion, identity, memory for ongoing experience and an individual's sense of reality and truth. The ethic of engagement focuses on social bonding and relies significantly on caregiver influence for its development in early childhood.[39]


The imagination ethic is centered in the neocortex and related thalamic structures.[40] It is focused on the outside world and allows for the integration of the other parts of the brain to allow for imaginative thinking and strategic problem solving. The ethic of imagination involves integrating internal information with external information, allowing an adult to acknowledge and possibly reject more emotional responses from the security or engagement ethics.[39]

Moralization of Smoking

Moral Psychology can be broken into two divisions: moralization that occurs individually and moralization that becomes institutionalized. Due to popular epidemiology, people have the freedom to govern themselves with regards to individual autonomy. Today, smoking has stimulated controversy within the field of moral psychology pertaining to whether it is considered an act of morality or immorality. Morality is typically defined as the collective beliefs that comprise and attribute to a good life. Based on religious morality, a good life means a long and healthy life.

Within the past ten years, there has been a shift from religious morality to a “here-and-now” secular value system. The health and fitness movement has had a major influence on our society’s social structure and attitudes concerning moralization. The present negative connotation of cigarette smoking in the United States is used to illustrate moralization. Being a morally sound person entails “a high-quality life that is extendable in years well beyond the lifespan of the previous generation – a relative immortality, won by a redoubled commitment to the health and fitness lifestyle” [41] Smoking has been proven to diminish your lifespan and therefore, under the standards of this new secular value system, would be considered immoral. Many people argue that smoking is in fact not immoral because the health and fitness movement requires a great deal of conformity, which infringes basic individual rights. The tobacco companies over exaggerate this infringement in an attempt to turn the public away from the morality and health issues that have been created due to new advancement in scientific findings. Twenty years ago, the negative effects of smoking tobacco were not well known to the general public and therefore smoking was not moralized. Tobacco companies attempted to keep sales up by creating a false sense of superiority and switching the blame to make the consumer feel immoral instead of the company. By claiming that there are healthier options to smoking, for example filtered and low-tar products, the costumer feels as though they are making an immoral purchase by buying a regular pack of cigarettes as oppose to the healthier alternatives. Tobacco companies have also strategized to target teenagers as potential smokers because they are known to ignore risks due to the belief in their invulnerability and high moral status.[42]

Because smoking is highly moralized in the United States, multiple moral and social psychologists have researched the relationship between risk perception and moralization across cultures. A study by Helweg-Larsen and Nielsen (2009) found cross-cultural differences in risk perception and moralization among Danish and American smokers. The results showed that moralization was correlated with greater personal risk perception among American smokers but not among Danish smokers. This can be attributed to many cultural differences. Moralization permeates culture and attitudes relating to risk. Moralization may influence peoples risk perceptions more heavily in the United States then in Denmark. This could be attributed to the severity of the smoking attitudes in the United States compared to the more relaxed attitudes in Denmark [43]

To further illustrate the harsh antismoking attitudes in the United States, the media has scrutinized President Barack Obama for his smoking habit. President Obama’s promise to quit smoking increased the already high moralization attitudes. The media attempted to “encourage privately held attitudes and beliefs to become sufficiently public as to provide consensus for moral action” [41] Antismoking campaigns and lobbying groups focus their attention on questioning the voluntary nature of smoking in an effort to enhance the moralization of smoking.[44] Due to a snowball effect, second hand smoke also became a heated topic for debate among government officials and corporations. Anti second hand smoking campaigns have illustrated through images in the media that cigarette smoking harms other people and thus is an immoral act. Politicians endorse these anti smoking movements by discouraging or prohibiting smoking.[45]

Moralization of Food

Much like smoking, food is also highly moralized in the United States. As mentioned previously, people are viewed in good moral standing when they lead healthy lives. In today’s fast paced society, too often people rely on fast food for substance. With the boom of the organic movement, we have begun to moralize foods that previously were considered neutral and merely as a means for survival. “Moralization converts preferences into values, and in doing so influences cross-generational transmission (because values are passed more effectively in families than are preferences), increases the likelihood of internalization, invokes greater emotional response, and mobilizes the support of governmental and other cultural institutions” [45] Smoking within the United States has become moralized and in turn, smokers are being compared to meat eaters. Many Americans find the act of eating meat to be immoral. A study conducted by Rozin showed that there is a tendency for disgust toward meat to be associated with moralization as opposed to health motivations. Rejection of animal products as food is a contemporary example of moralization.[45]


The subjects covered by moral psychology include:

  • The structure of action
  • Perceived causes and events of moral action
  • Emotions in morality
  • The faculties of the mind involved in moral decision
  • The interaction of those faculties and the emotions

  • Moral commitment
  • Rationality in moral matters
  • Moral judgement
  • The relationship between ethics and moral action
  • The means by which moral agents understand each other

See also


  1. See, for example, Lapsley (2006) and "moral psychology" (2007).
  2. See, for example, Doris & Stich (2008) and Wallace (2007). Wallace writes: "Moral psychology is the study of morality in its psychological dimensions" (p. 86).
  3. See Doris & Stich (2008), §1.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hardy, S. A., & Carlo, G. (2011). Moral identity: What is it, how does it develop, and is it linked to moral action?. Child Development Perspectives, 5(3), 212-218. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00189.x
  5. Teper, R., Inzlicht, M., & Page-Gould, E. (2011). Are we more moral than we think?: Exploring the role of affect in moral behavior and moral forecasting. Psychological Science, 22(4), 553-558. doi:10.1177/0956797611402513
  6. Doris & Stich (2008), §1.
  7. Leffel (2008)
  8. Leffel's (2008) model draws heavily on Haidt's (2001) "Social Intuitionist Model" of moral judgment.
  9. Haidt, Jonathan, Jesse Graham (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize. Social Justice Research 20 (1): 98–116.[dead link]
  10. Talks: Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives at TED in 2008
  12. The development of extraordinary moral commitment, Anne Colby and William Damon
  13. Moral character: A Psychological Approach, Augusto Blasi
  14. Identity as a Source of Moral Motivation, Samuel Hardy and Gustavo Carlo
  15. Emmons, Robert A. "Greatest of Virtues? Gratitude and the Grateful Personality." Personality, Identity, and Character. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. 256-70. Print.
  16. Crain, W.C. Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. URL accessed on 3 October 2011.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Gilligan and Attanucci (1988). Two Moral Orientations: Gender Differences and Similarities. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly; 34(3), 223-237.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Baumeister, Miller, & Delaney (2005). Self and Volition
  19. Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice,Muraven, Baumeister & Tice
  20. Reynolds, SJ Ceranic, TL (2007). The effects of moral judgment and moral identity on moral behavior: a empirical examiniation of the moral individual. Seattle, Journals of Applied Psychology.
  21. Haidt, Jonathan (October 2001). The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail. Psychological Review 108 (4).
  22. Armstrong, Walter (2008). Moral Psychology, 35–79, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 Haidt, Jonathan, and Jesse Graham. "When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize." Social Justice Research 20.1 (2007): 98-116. Print.
  24. Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p. 853
  25. Hare (1981)
  26. Gewirth, 1984
  27. Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p 583
  28. Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p. 855
  29. aidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. p. 855
  30. Skitka, Linda (2002). Do the means always justify the ends or do the ends sometimes justify the means? A value protection model of justice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28: 452–461.
  31. Morgan, G. S.; Skitka, L. J. (2011). "Moral conviction" Daniel J. Christie Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology, Wiley-Blackwell.
  32. Skitka, L. J., Bauman, C., & Sargis, E. (2005). Moral conviction: Another contributor to attitude strength or something more?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88: 895–917.
  33. Wong (2009) Cultural pluralism and moral identity
  34. Schwartz, Shalom H. “Universals in the Content and Structure of Values: Theoretical Advances and Empirical Tests in 20 Countries.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 25 (1992): 1-65. Print.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Schwartz, S (1999). A theory of cultural values and some implications for work. International association of applied psychology.
  36. Rozin, P. (1999). The process of moralization. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 10(3), 218.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 76(4), 574-586. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.4.574
  38. Jones, A., Fitness, J. (2008). “Moral hypervigilance: The influence of disgust sensitivity in the moral domain”. Emotion 8(5): 613-627. doi: 10.1037/a0013435
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 Narváez, Darcia, and Daniel K. Lapsley. "Triune Ethics Theory and Moral Personality." Personality, Identity, and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 MacLean, P.D.(1990). The triune concept of the brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York:Plenum
  41. 41.0 41.1 Katz, S. (1997). Secular morality. In A. M. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.), Morality and Health (pp. 295-330). New York, NY: Routledge
  42. Brandt, A. M. (2004). Difference and diffusion: Cross-cultural perspectives on the rise of anti-tobacco policies. In E. A. Feldman & R. Bayer (Eds), Unfiltered: Conflicts over tobacco policy and public health (pp. 255-380). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  43. Helweg-Larsen, M., Tobias, M. R., & Cerban, B. M. (2010). Risk perception and moralization among smokers in the USA and Denmark: A qualitative approach. British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, 871-886.
  44. Brandt, A. M. (2004). Difference and diffusion: Cross-cultural perspectives on the rise of anti-tobacco policies. In E. A. Feldman & R. Bayer (Eds), Unfiltered: Conflicts over tobacco policy and public health (pp. 255-380). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 Rozin, P., Markwith, M., & Stoess, C. (1997). Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science, 8(2), 67-73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00685.x

28. ^Katz, S. (1997). Secular morality. In A. M. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.), Morality and Health (pp. 295–330). New York, NY: Routledge

29. ^Helweg-Larsen, M., Tobias, M. R., & Cerban, B. M. (2010). Risk perception and moralization among smokers in the USA and Denmark: A qualitative approach. British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, 871-886

30. ^Brandt, A. M. (2004). Difference and diffusion: Cross-cultural perspectives on the rise of anti-tobacco policies. In E. A. Feldman & R. Bayer (Eds), Unfiltered: Conflicts over tobacco policy and public health (pp. 255–380). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

31. ^Hardy, S. A., & Carlo, G. (2011). Moral identity: What is it, how does it develop, and is it linked to moral action?. Child Development Perspectives, 5(3), 212-218. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00189.x

32. ^Teper, R., Inzlicht, M., & Page-Gould, E. (2011). Are we more moral than we think?: Exploring the role of affect in moral behavior and moral forecasting. Psychological Science, 22(4), 553-558. doi:10.1177/0956797611402513

33. ^Jones, A., Fitness, J. (2008). “Moral hypervigilance: The influence of disgust sensitivity in the moral domain”. Emotion 8(5): 613-627. doi: 10.1037/a0013435

34. ^Rozin, P. (1999). The process of moralization. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 10(3), 218.

35. ^Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 76(4), 574-586. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.4.574

36. ^Rozin, P., Markwith, M., & Stoess, C. (1997). Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science, 8(2), 67-73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00685.x

References and further reading

  • Baron, J., & Spranca, M. (1997). Protected values. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 70, 1-16.
  • Batson, C. D. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Doris, John M. (2002). Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Doris, John & Stich, Stephen. (2008). "Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). link
  • Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834.
  • Jackson, Frank & Smith, Michael (eds.) (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
  • Lapsley, Daniel K. (1996). Moral Psychology. Westview Press. ISBN 0813330335
  • Leffel, G.M. (2008). Who cares? Generativity and the moral emotions, Part 2: A social intuitionist model of moral motivation. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36(3), 182-201.
  • McGraw, A.P., Tetlock, P.E., & Kristel, O.V. (2003). The limits of fungibility: Relational schemata and the value of things. Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 219-229.
  • Mikhail, John. (2011). Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • "Moral psychology" (2007). Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 6, 2008 from link
  • Nagel, Thomas. (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton University Press.
  • Nichols, Shaun. (2004). Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Plato. The Republic, public domain.
  • Richardson, Henry S. (2008). "Moral Reasoning", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). link
  • Roberts, Robert C. Emotions: An Essay in aid of Moral Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, ed. (2007). Moral Psychology, 3 volumes. MIT Press. ISBN 0262693542
  • Smith, Michael. (1994). The Moral Problem. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.
  • Tetlock, P., Kristel, O., Elson, B., Green, M., and Lerner, J. (2000). "The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 853-870.
  • Thagard, Paul. (2007). "The Moral Psychology of Conflicts of Interest: Insights from Affective Neuroscience". Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24(4), pp. 367–380.
  • Wallace, R. Jay. (2007). "Moral Psychology", Ch. 4 of Jackson & Smith (2007), pp. 86–113.
  • Wallace, R. Jay (2006). Normativity and the Will. Selected Essays on Moral Psychology and Practical Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Brandt, A. M. (2004). Difference and diffuFsion: Cross-cultural perspectives on the rise of anti-tobacco policies. In E. A. Feldman & R. Bayer (Eds), Unfiltered: Conflicts over tobacco policy and public health (pp. 255–380). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hardy, S. A., & Carlo, G. (2011). Moral identity: What is it, how does it develop, and is it linked to moral action?. Child Development Perspectives, 5(3), 212-218. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00189.x
  • Teper, R., Inzlicht, M., & Page-Gould, E. (2011). Are we more moral than we think?: Exploring the role of affect in moral behavior and moral forecasting. Psychological Science, 22(4), 553-558. doi:10.1177/0956797611402513
  • Jones, A., Fitness, J. (2008). “Moral hypervigilance: The influence of disgust sensitivity in the moral domain”. Emotion 8(5): 613-627. doi: 10.1037/a0013435
  • Rozin, P. (1999). The process of moralization. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 10(3), 218.
  • Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 76(4), 574-586. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.4.574

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