Why Do People Declare Things to Be Immoral?

A thought-provoking paper by Michael Bang Peterson proposes that moralization is used as a defense mechanism when somebody has no allies:

Over the course of human evolutionary history, individuals have required protection from other individuals who sought to exploit them. Moralization – broadcasting relevant behaviors as immoral – is proposed as a strategy whereby individuals attempt to engage third parties in the protection against exploitation. Whereas previous accounts of strategic morality have focused on the effect of individual differences in mating strategies, we here argue for the importance of another factor: differences in the availability of alternative sources of protection. Given the potential costs of moralization, it is predicted that it is primarily used among individuals lacking protection in the form of social allies. Consistent with this, a large cross-national set of surveys is used to reveal how individuals without friends moralize more. In contrast, however, support from other social sources such as family or religious individuals increases moralization.

It’s an interesting idea that’s fairly intuitive. When you don’t have any protection moral arguments are appealing because the subjectivity of morality makes the arguments irrefutable. It’s also easy to find current situations where the paper might apply. For example, perhaps the moral appeals of what’s left of the opposition to gay marriage are driven in part by feelings of dwindling support.


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