Moral Person Perception
A major focus of my research at present is moral person perception. Imagine that you have been set up on a blind date. You talk for hours and the conversation flows reasonably well. The next day you call your friend and she asks you what he’s like. Did he seem like a kind, trustworthy person? Was he warm, talkative? Was he intelligent, capable? These three questions tap the social dimensions of morality, warmth, and competence, and are fundamental to person perception because they address the three kinds of question we must answer when we meet a new partner: Do they wish us well (morality)? Do they have the social support to enact their intentions (warmth)? And do they have the capability to enact their intentions (competence)? Morality dominates person perception. However, little is known about how the different kinds of moral judgments people make, the values they hold, and the behaviours they perform impact person perception.
The complexity of person perception when it comes to moral decisions can be seen in Les Miserables. On the one hand you have Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to years in penal servitude for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. On the other hand you have Inspector Javert, a rigid devotee of the law and God’s code, insisting that Valjean be punished for his crime. Neither is strictly speaking immoral, but they act morally in different ways, drawing on different ethical principles to justify their actions. It seems, too, that while both moral, they will be perceived in different ways. These different ways of thinking about moral issues – and moral people – are reflected in the philosophical literature between two key approaches to ethics: consequentialism and deontology. In our Les Miserable example, the law-loving Javert would be classed as deontological, while the bread-stealing Valjean would be classed as consequentialist. I have explored how deontological and consequentialist decision makers are perceived, and the implications this might have for why we hold the moral intuitions we do, showing that person perception is not just sensitive to whether someone has moral qualities, but the kinds of moral judgments they make.
Utilitarian Moral Judgments
What are the psychological roots of utilitarianism? Why does utilitarianism attract some people but strongly repel so many others? Psychologists have tried to answer these questions by using the now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) ‘trolley problems’. Many psychologists assume that by studying how people respond to these problems, we can shed light on the psychology of utilitarian decision-making as well as on the sources of resistance to utilitarianism. Because of this research, many people now associate utilitarianism with a cold and calculating response to trolley dilemmas: to be a utilitarian is to be willing to sacrifice an innocent person to save a greater number of lives. My collaborators and I have proposed a new two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology which treats utilitarian moral decision-making not as an all-or-nothing category but as a matter of degree, and as involving two largely independent ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ dimensions. Decisions in sacrificial dilemmas tap the endorsement of “instrumental harm”, which can be theoretically and empirically distinguished from impartiality dilemmas that tap the more positive, impartial welfare-maximising dimension (“impartial beneficence”) of consequentialist theories and consequentialist tendencies in ordinary people. Since trolley dilemmas are concerned only with the issue of instrumental harm, they can at best only tell half of the story about the psychology of utilitarianism—and arguably the less important half.
I have recently begun exploring the psychology of speciesism, or the differential assignment of moral worth based solely on species membership. To say that human relationships with (non-human) animals are complex would be somewhat of an understatement. We treasure some animals as pets, showering them with our love and devotion and providing them with a diet and quality of health care better even than some humans in the developing world. All this, of course, while other animals are factory farmed and slaughtered so that their bodies can provide the meat we share with our pets, and yet others regarded as experimental subjects, sources of entertainment, or industrial equipment. Philosophers have described our relationships with animals as “speciesist “, which refers to the assignment of different inherent moral status based solely on an individual’s species membership. Descriptively, speciesism is a concept that explains how people behave; namely that they do, as a matter of fact, assign moral worth to individuals on the basis of species membership, such that people can therefore be accurately described as having speciesist attitudes. Normatively, much work on speciesism is rooted in the claim that people should not assign different moral values to individuals based solely on their species membership, with analogies made with treating people different solely based upon their race (racism) or gender (sexism). As a moral psychologist, I have become increasingly interested in speciesism. How can our understanding of human intergroup processes and moral judgments help us understand our paradoxical treatment of animals?
While not a current research focus of mine, an early interest of mine was parochial altruism, or ingroup favouring prosocial behaviour. Using behavioural economic methods and concepts, I explored when people help ingroup members just because they want to (social preferences) versus when they help because they expect it to be strategically advantageous (beliefs / expectations) Together, my work on this topic highlights the importance of social preferences and paints a picture in which acting more prosocially towards ingroup than outgroup members represents a ‘default’ position based on intuitive process that are activated across different contexts and even with novel groups.
I have been privileged in receiving support from a number of academic funding bodies, including from the University of Oxford and the Economic and Social Research Council for my D.Phil; the University of Oxford and the Oxford Martin School for my PostDoctoral work looking at moral responsibility; the US-UK Fulbright Commission for my visiting research position at Harvard University looking at in-group favouritism; the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Foundation and Leiden University for my Post-Doctoral research on parochial morality; and the Templeton Foundation, via the Summer Schools in Neuroscience and Philosophy, for a research grant looking at morality and psychological identity.