The four elements of moralization: How things become “right” and “wrong”

Last time, I described my model of the cultural process that leads people to adopt new ideas about right and wrong. Before I can really tell the story properly, though, I need to invest a few paragraphs in the nitty-gritty details. Here we go!

To review, the model has four parts:
1. Identify a valued domain.
2. Show that the domain is threatened.
3. Establish a source of moral knowledge.
4. Appeal to the emotionally powerful concept of purity.


Threats to Something Valued

Parts 1 and 2 go together. They’re answering the question, “What should we do, and why?” But there’s actually two ways this can work. One way is to focus on some entity that we care about, and a threat to that entity, like “We should protect wilderness because otherwise it will vanish to development and industry.” Another way, though, is to focus on some sort of behavior or activity that we think is desirable (or undesirable), and this behavior might be relevant to multiple domains. A good example is, “We should be vegetarians, because (a) we don’t want to hurt animals, and also we think eating plant-based foods is better for (b) the environment and (c) our own health.” (In fact, when people are vegetarians for moral reasons, research shows that they do tend to “recruit” more and more moral reasons that also matter to them, beyond whatever their initial reasons were.) However complex a moral argument becomes, though, the two basic parts always appear in moralization – something important, and a potential harm to it.

Authority: What’s Right?

Then comes 3: How do we know what to do, and whether we’re doing it right? One answer, of course, is to rely on whatever one’s traditions (religious, legal, community elders) say. Another answer is to defer to science, which makes sense when there’s hard evidence about causation, or at least about risk. When it comes to interpersonal matters, a good source of knowledge is empathic perspective-taking, trying to imagine the relevant thoughts and feelings either of the other people involved or of some credible role-model. What would Jesus, or the Dalai Lama, do? Sometimes direct personal experience is considered a good source of moral knowledge – when John Muir wanted to save Yosemite, he convinced Teddy Roosevelt to go camping there with him, and it worked. And of course, one’s own conscience can be a trusted guide to moral matters.

The Power of Purity

And now for 4, purity. There are several emotionally powerful ideas wrapped up in the concept of purity. Something that’s pure is in an ideal form, especially associated with origins – that is, sometimes it’s the way things are imagined to be before they became diluted or degraded or contaminated with other things (for example, the pure heart of a child, or the pure teachings passed along by the founder of a religious movement). It’s often seen as something’s true or best form (pure water, pure reason). The distance from a pure ideal can be experienced as a lack or need that motivates people to act. Purity is closely associated with the sacred, the transcendent, original conditions, and ultimates. Purity is also closely associated with the opposites of these things: things that are disgusting, reviled, demonic. Each of these ideas can be powerfully motivating, either as things to avoid or things to desire or protect.

Sacredness, in particular, is worth a bit more discussion, because the idea is much more broad than religion. A nation’s flag and historic monuments have a kind of “secular sacred” status, and deliberately damage to them can be seriously upsetting, as can deliberate or careless damage to a wilderness area or a coral reef. Even scientific discovery can be considered a sacred calling that shouldn’t be corrupted by the desire for fame or wealth. People are drawn to what they personally consider sacred and react poorly to its desecration, and people’s ideas of the sacred are strongly influenced by whichever authorities they most respect.

So when people are trying to inspire others to agree with them about the importance of a moral cause, purity has its own emotional impact, and it also reinforces the other three elements. A cause associated with purity is especially important – a threat to small children is perceived much more negatively than the same threat to adults. Purity-related language can highlight the nature of a threat (contamination, for example) – the pollution of pure spring water seems a greater loss than the pollution of everyday, ordinary water. Purity can function as an idealized standard, which becomes part of one’s moral knowledge, telling one how to act and when one is doing things right (coming closer to that standard). And finally, appealing to purity makes any issue simpler and easier to communicate – it becomes more of an either/or, black-and-white issue. It’s hard to argue with someone who believes that life (or anything else) is sacred, except to ask them to be consistent about it.

There’s another way that purity affects motivation, too, and that has to do with fitting things into categories. The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote extensively about this aspect of purity. In many societies, sometimes including our own, there’s a drive towards creating systems of categories, where everything’s supposed to fit into a category so it can be understood and sometimes managed. We might think of this as a form of “conceptual purity.” Of course, there are always going to be exceptions, and the key issue is how people feel about these exceptions. Sometimes it can be really important to keep things distinct. An observant Jew might feel disgusted by the idea of a cheeseburger, which violates the dietary laws about the importance of keeping two things separate (meat and dairy) that are both fine on their own. Category “violations” can lead some people to feel uneasy and uncomfortable, whereas others might find the same things to be energizing and creative – think of examples in art, for example. Or drag queens.

For people who value having things in their proper categories, there can be a strong motivation to try to stifle and repress (or at a minimum, ignore) things that don’t fit. Those who actively prefer unconventionality, on the other hand, believe that strangeness and mixing things up can be important for societal flexibility and adaptation. And of course nobody’s going to be consistent about this all the time; someone in a “mixed” marriage, or someone who loves “fusion” cuisine, might prefer conventional art and music genres or want men and women to conform to traditional gender roles.

In sum, there are many to appeal to purity when trying to moralize a topic, but as the examples show, there’s a lot of variation in whether any given mention of purity will affect a particular person. It’s likely to depend on the issues the person already cares about, and the types of authority the person already respects, as well as personality differences in terms of comfort with categories vs. ambiguity. Being susceptible to the emotional power of purity seems to be a deep-seated and widespread phenomenon, though, and worthy of further research.

Next time, I’m planning to write about the much-publicized Moral Foundations Theory, and I’ll explain how it fits into my model. In other words: sex and politics. Stay tuned!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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1 Response to The four elements of moralization: How things become “right” and “wrong”

  1. Pingback: What Moral Foundation Theory gets wrong | Living In Dialogue

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