February 1, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Can We Just Pretend Morality Is Real?

A survey experiment showed that people who believe morals are like facts are more charitable than those who consider morals mere subjective opinions.

In “‘Moral Realism’ May Lead to Better Moral Behavior,” Science Daily reported on a survey by Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College.  Her survey team went out seeking donations for charity.  Before requesting money, the canvassers asked a leading question that “primed” the respondent to consider whether morality involves objective facts or mere cultural opinions.  The ones primed with “moral realism” gave more money.  Young got similar results with an online survey.  Control groups were not “primed” with the leading questions.

Since “real” moral stakes may be accompanied by “real” consequences — whether good (e.g., helping others, enhanced self-esteem) or bad (e.g., retribution), priming a belief in moral realism may in fact prompt people to behave better, in line with their existing moral beliefs, the researchers say.

This conclusion makes no judgment about moral realism or anti-realism.  It just states what works.

This is a modern form of behaviorism: an amoral, godless psychological theory that denies the reality of mental states, and just observes outward behaviors.  Behaviorists seek to find what kinds of manipulative actions produce predictable behaviors.  But who decides what behavior is “better” without unchanging standards?  In the wrong hands, this kind of information could lead unscrupulous leaders to manipulate people for the leader’s own purposes.

Either morality is real, like unchangeable facts, or it evolves.  If it evolves, what is considered evil today could become “good” in another time and culture.  Unless there are moral absolutes, therefore, there are no morals at all.  We need to promote “moral realism” not just because it produces someone’s opinion of desirable results, but because it is true.



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