How Time, Space and Authority Figures Influence Your Moral Judgment

A study of how people respond to outrageous acts suggests that our sense of crime and punishment is surprisingly flexible

Coming to grips with our moral code. moodboard/Corbis

To what degree does Barack Obama or Donald Trump influence your moral judgment? Does a murder abroad carry the same moral weight as one committed at home?

Philosophers and psychologists studying moral reasoning have long argued that certain pillars of morality are largely fixed and apply universally across time and space. But work conducted by an international team of researchers now suggests that people's moral judgments are far more flexible than previously thought. The study offers insight into the ways people respond to morally troubling events, from rape to slander, and may yield clues to the level of outrage expressed by a given community.

“Human societies all have higher-order punishment, which means that we don’t just punish wrongdoers, we punish people who fail to punish wrongdoers,” says co-author Daniel Fessler, a professor of anthropology at University of California, Los Angeles. “So it is costly not to be outraged when you should be.”

According to Fessler, the long-standing tradition in philosophy is to understand moral judgment by reasoning about it in the abstract. “But instead of sitting in the philosopher’s armchair, attempting to infer the nature of the human mind, our research team was interested in finding out how people really think and then use that evidence to address the philosophical literature,” he says.

For instance, most Americans would say that slavery in the South was morally wrong, says Fessler. “But when asked about slavery in ancient Greece, you quickly get the feeling that people think this is not as bad. This raises the question, where is the difference for people’s intuition coming from?”

Fessler and his team sought to test this hypothesis by probing the moral judgments of diverse populations from around the globe, ranging from metropolitan Los Angeles to rural Ukraine to the remote island of Fiji. The researchers were careful to choose locations that were geographically disparate, historically and culturally unrelated and that covered a wide spectrum of technological development, socioeconomic status and population size. In particular, they focused on smaller societies that more accurately resemble the civilizations that characterize 99 percent of our evolutionary history.

More than 200 subjects listened to seven stories that described an action that would be considered highly immoral, such as stealing, battery or rape. After completing a comprehension test, they were asked to rate how good or bad they perceived the specified action to be. The participants were then asked to reassess their morality rating after learning that an influential leader in their community approved of it, and to consider if the action took place a long time ago or if the action took place very far away.

For each condition, members of nearly all the societies judged the previously egregious actions as less morally problematic, even when accounting for various factors such as age, sex, education level or the specific moral situation they assessed. The team presents their findings this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

So what causes this shift in attitudes? According to Fessler, moral judgments are the products of an evolved psychology that motivates people to follow and enforce a set of rules. Although it can be costly in terms of time and energy, this community-oriented psychology confers benefits upon individuals who establish a moral reputation. People seen as highly moral are more likely to be included in future cooperative ventures in the community, such as a hunt or a barn raising, that enhance their ability to survive.

But there is a time and place when it comes to enforcing moral codes. “There are few payoffs for caring a lot about things that happened far away or long ago, because passing judgments on these things is cheap talk, and the local community is not better off for the policing of those actions,” says Fessler.

Instead, someone can only obtain “moral capital” when the situation is relevant to the community and there is an actual cost to the enforcement of a moral code. Fessler gives an example in which football players illegally park in handicapped spots because they are closest to campus. Since the players pose a physical threat, anyone willing to stand up and call them out on shady behavior would receive a huge boost in moral reputation.

But when individuals continually express outrage at events far removed from the present, they dilute their moral potency and lose reputation. “Those evolved psychological mechanisms that are governing the production of moral judgment are sensitive to the payoffs,” says Fessler. “They make us feel outraged when it has positive consequences for the judge, and those are going to be things in the here and now … not something far away.”

Along similar lines, people of high importance in their respective communities, whether a tribal leader in Fiji or Majority Whip in the U.S. Congress, largely shape the interpretation of moral norms in their respective environments. That means the same psychology that seeks to boost moral reputation should also be finely attuned to the opinions of important leaders.

Fessler stresses that understanding this behavior is by no means a justification for it. “The moral psychologists and philosophers are completely right,” says Fessler. “If you think something is wrong, then you should think it is wrong everywhere and anytime. But empirically, it is the case that people are in fact morally parochialists, even if that position is philosophically indefensible.”

Inspiring people to be more universal in their sense of moral outrage may involve one of the most powerful forces currently driving social change—the Internet. Photography, video and other social media can turn our planet into one common neighborhood. There is strong evidence these tools tap into our inherent psychology and give people the impression that morally unjust events happening far away are in fact happening locally—just ask the U.S. dentist at the center of the controversy over Zimbabwe's Cecil the lion.

“We really are one global community now and we have to act like it, because if we don’t, we are all in trouble," says Fessler. “Happily our psychology is already geared toward thinking about a single community. We just have to convince one another that the whole world is that community.”

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.