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Red Wall & Stairs

Philosophy Question:  Are you more moral than most people you know?

                      Should you strive to be more moral?  Why or why not?                      Hubert Chen 

Humans from a young age have at least some senses of morality because immediately society impresses moral considerations onto each and every individual, and these considerations keep us “in check.” They allow us to function within the bounds of morality and limit us. If we did not function within these bounds, we would innately fend for ourselves without much consideration of morality or ethics. However, even though we are not innately moral, we should strive to be. In other words, we must heed important moral codes that can be reflected in our everyday interactions and behavior for society to run smoothly.

Indeed, decades of research confirms that we are all above average—at least in our own minds—and this can include our perception of our morality compared to that of others. When comparing ourselves with other people, we tend to rate ourselves more highly from a host of positive measures including intelligence, ambition, friendliness, and modesty. This finding is also known as the “self-enhancement” effect, which can include our moral characteristics.This self-righteousness can be destructive because it reduces our willingness to cooperate or compromise, creates distance between ourselves and others, and can lead to intolerance or even violence. Feelings of moral superiority may play a role in political discord, social conflict, or even terrorism.

A new study by Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay indicates that the tendency towards self-enhancement — towards judging ourselves "better than average" — is particularly acute in the moral domain. We think we're more sociable and cooperative than average, but we're especially inclined to think that we're more honest and fairer. The study takes a step beyond prior work, however, in trying to quantify the extent to which this moral self-enhancement might be justified.

They explain their argument as follows. Not all self-enhancement is unjustified, because people have more information about themselves than they do about others. Estimates about other people thus involve greater uncertainty, and it makes sense to be conservative and assume "average" values. For ourselves, though, we have more information, and will sometimes be warranted in assigning extreme values. If these values are extreme in a desirable direction, the result will be self-enhancement — but self-enhancement that emerges as a side-effect of a rational process of inference from limited information.

For their sample of 270 adult participants, Tappin and McKay quantified the extent to which self-enhancement was potentially justified by developing a model that took into account people's judgments about themselves versus others across a range of 30 traits, the actual differences between self-versus others in ratings for those traits, and people's judgments about the desirability of each trait. Based on this analysis, they could estimate the extent to which self-enhancement was simply a consequence of making an uncertain inference about others, and the extent to which self-enhancement reflected a systematic bias to over-attribute desirable traits to oneself.

The analysis revealed that by and large, moral self-enhancement isn't a simple consequence of drawing inferences from limited information. Whereas self-enhancement regarding social traits — such as sociability or warmth — could be entirely explained by the component of their model based on uncertain inference, moral self-enhancement went well beyond what could be justified in this way. In other words, the extent of people's moral self-enhancement appears to be unjustified.

On the whole, we believe ourselves to be more moral than others, and we make these judgments irrationally. What are the consequences? On the plus side, feelings of moral superiority could, in theory, protect our well-being. For example, there is danger in mistakenly believing that people are more trustworthy or loyal than they really are, and approaching others with moral skepticism may reduce the likelihood that we fall prey to a liar or a cheat. On the other hand, self-enhanced moral superiority could erode our own ethical behavior. Evidence from recent studies suggests that self-perceptions of morality may prompt future immoral.5 An individual who volunteers to deliver food for a homeless shelter volunteer program, for example, may later find it acceptable to steal from it. This moral licensing effect has been documented in many domains, including consumer behavior, the workplace, race relations, and charitable donations. When our moral self-image is well-established (either through actions or the self-enhancement effect), we may feel less obligated to follow a strict ethical code. Thus, the fact that we tend to believe that we are above the moral average could ironically make us less so. This reasoning justifies why most people feel more moral than those around them. I often, too, feel more qualified than most others I know to voice my opinions on ethics and what is right and what is wrong when in reality, we are all equally unqualified.

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