Making moral principles suit yourself

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 1 (2021)
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Abstract

Normative ethical theories and religious traditions offer general moral principles for people to follow. These moral principles are typically meant to be fixed and rigid, offering reliable guides for moral judgment and decision-making. In two preregistered studies, we found consistent evidence that agreement with general moral principles shifted depending upon events recently accessed in memory. After recalling their own personal violations of moral principles, participants agreed less strongly with those very principles—relative to participants who recalled events in which other people violated the principles. This shift in agreement was explained, in part, by people’s willingness to excuse their own moral transgressions, but not the transgressions of others. These results have important implications for understanding the roles memory and personal identity in moral judgment. People’s commitment to moral principles may be maintained when they recall others’ past violations, but their commitment may wane when they recall their own violations.

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Author Profiles

Paul Henne
Lake Forest College
Laura Niemi
University of Toronto, St. George Campus
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