This Is How People Judge Good From Bad, According To Science

Image: Jack Sorokin

Are all lies morally wrong? You might instinctively answer "yes" at first blush, but what if I told you a particular lie would save someone's life? Then would you feel like it was justified?

Researchers have been studying the clearly nuanced nature of morality for years, and new research from North Carolina State University offers an insightful explanation for why humans tend to make the same unconscious moral evaluations, time and time again. According to the study, most people make snap moral judgments based on three factors: the agent (the character or intention of the person committing the action); the deed (the action itself); and the consequence brought about by the situation (in other words, the outcome). Researchers call this the "ADC model," and it is the first of its kind to explain what's going on in our minds when we quickly judge others.

"This approach allows us to explain not only the variability in the moral status of lying but also the flip side: that telling the truth can be immoral if it is done maliciously and causes harm," said Veljko Dubljević, Ph.D., a North Carolina State University philosophy and science professor and the lead study author, in a news release.

To develop and test this framework, the researchers first came up with a series of scenarios that were logical, realistic, and easy to understand. They called on 141 professional philosophers with training in ethics to vet the scenarios, and then they asked 525 laypeople to evaluate eight of the scenarios in which a low-stakes moral decision had to be made. They also asked 786 other participants to analyze one low-stakes scenario and one life-or-death scenario.

The study found that when the stakes of the scenario were lower, people used the nature of the deed to determine whether the situation was morally good or bad. For example, when no one's life was at risk, people judged the situation based on whether the subject was lying or not rather than considering the overall outcome. However, when the stakes were higher, the nature of the consequences mattered most to the participants: When a situation became life or death, participants typically felt that the ends justified the means.

"For instance, the possibility of saving numerous lives seems to be able to justify less than savory actions, such as the use of violence, or motivations for action, such as greed, in certain conditions," Dr. Dubljević said.

Interestingly, when a situation had a good outcome, the difference between a good and bad deed felt less morally relevant to the participants overall.

The philosophers and the general public also tended to make the same kinds of judgments. According to Dr. Dubljević, this suggests that most people make snap moral judgments the same way, regardless of their training.

Why does this understanding of morality matter? On a global level, this research has major implications: For example, Dr. Dubljević is currently working on understanding how to program artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. His morality research will inform the "cognitive architecture" of these technologies. Having a concrete model for how we make tough decisions is vital for ensuring AI not only act more human but also behave ethically.

On a personal level, this study gives us more information about why our "moral intuition" might lead us to automatically judge someone or something in a certain way. When we become more aware of the reasons behind our unintentional reactions, it can be easier to make more rational decisions about how we relate to others.

"You can't stop judging unless you are aware that you're doing it. It's not uncommon for judgmental thoughts of yourself and others to be automatic—not even conscious," writes relationships counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., at mindbodygreen. "As you become conscious of your judgments, you then have the choice to shift your thinking to acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness."

The next time you're deciding whether something or someone is "good" or "bad," consider whether you're judging based on the agent, the deed, or the consequence. Which should you be judging them on?

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