What Are the Causes and Consequences of Moral Improvement?
Maximizing and equitably distributing well-being for the greater good requires that people suppress their selfishness and make an effort for the benefit of others. Although moral cultivation is a central goal of many religious and philosophical traditions, psychological science has little to say about what moral improvement looks like in practice. Thus, I have recently turned to questions about the causes and consequences of moral improvement.
So far, my research suggests that people don’t particularly want to be more moral (e.g., honest, compassionate, and fair); instead, they overwhelmingly prioritize goals to become less anxious and less depressed (Sun & Goodwin, 2020, Psych Science). Informant reports revealed that close others didn’t want participants to be more moral, either.
These findings have motivated a long-term research agenda on moral improvement. After all, although much moral psychology research paints a bleak portrait of people’s typical moral motivation, people sometimes do strive to become more moral and succeed in this endeavor. How do people become more moral? I propose that social influence—how other people inspire, support, and hinder efforts to become more moral—could be an important cause. Although prominent theories of moral judgment propose some role for social influence (Haidt, 2001), this idea has remained largely theoretical. To address this lack of data, Dr. Geoff Goodwin and I recently submitted a Templeton grant proposal that would answer crucial questions about the mechanisms by which other people influence moral improvement. For example, other people may be more attuned to our moral flaws (Sun & Vazire, 2019, Psych Science; Sun et al., 2021, JPSP). Thus, in one study, we plan to employ a novel “moral suggestion box” paradigm to examine whether anonymous, candid moral feedback from close others could inspire moral improvement.
There are many other promising directions for a long-term research agenda on moral improvement. For example, if they were so inspired, what would people do to become more moral? Codings of open-ended responses suggest that people overwhelmingly think about moral improvement in terms of changing broad traits (vs. specific or contextualized behaviors), and that the most common goal is to become more compassionate (Sun, Wilt, Meindl, Watkins, & Goodwin, in progress). Are there unique barriers to moral (vs. non-moral) change? Developmentally, when are people most motivated to make moral improvements? Ultimately, by addressing such questions, I will develop a theory of the causes, process, and consequences of moral improvement.