No one thinks much about morality these days, besides it being a personal metric. Once postmodernists and moral relativists took over philosophy, it became overrun with amateur ponderings. Now it has social psychologists seeking to bring back some objectivity.

Getting people to think about morality as objective facts rather than subjective preferences may lead to improved moral behavior, Boston College academics write in a new paper.

In two experiments, online and in-person, participants were primed to consider a belief in either moral realism (the notion that morals are like facts) or moral antirealism (the belief that morals reflect people's preferences) during a solicitation for a charitable donation. In both cases, those primed with moral realism pledged to give more money to the charity than those primed with anti-realism or those not primed at all.

"There is significant debate about whether morals are processed more like objective facts, like mathematical truths, or more like subjective preferences similar to whether vanilla or chocolate tastes better," said lead author Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College. "We wanted to explore the impact of these different meta-ethical views on actual behavior."

Ideas have previously been advanced on the subject, but Young and her former research assistant A.J. Durwin, now a law student at Hofstra University, say they are the first to directly investigate the question. 

In one experiment, a street canvasser attempted to solicit donations from passersby for a charity that aids impoverished children. Participants in one set were asked a leading question to prime a belief in moral realism: "Do you agree that some things are just morally right or wrong, good or bad, wherever you happen to be from in the world?"

Those in a second set were asked a question to prime belief in moral anti-realism: "Do you agree that our morals and values are shaped by our culture and upbringing, so there are no absolute right answers to any moral questions?"

Participants in a control set were not asked any priming question.

In this experiment, participants primed with realism were twice as likely to be donors, compared to those primed with antirealism or not primed at all.


A second experiment, conducted online, yielded similar results. Participants asked to donate money to a charity of their choice who were primed with realism reported being willing to give more than those primed with antirealism or not primed at all.

"Priming participants to consider the notion that morals are like facts increased decisions to donate in both experiments, revealing the potential impact of meta-ethical views on everyday decision-making," said Young. "Simply asking participants to consider moral values, as we did with the antirealism prime, did not produce an effect, so priming morality in general may not necessarily lead to better behavior. Considering the existence of non-negotiable moral facts may have raised the stakes and motivated participants to behave better."

Since "real" moral stakes may be accompanied by "real" consequences —whether good (e.g., helping others, enhanced self-esteem) or bad (e.g., retribution), priming a belief in moral realism may in fact prompt people to behave better, in line with their existing moral beliefs, the researchers say.

The researchers note that priming a belief in moral realism may enhance moral behavior under certain conditions — such as when the right thing to do is relatively unambiguous (e.g., it is good to be generous). A different outcome could be possible when subjects are faced with more controversial moral issues, they say.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.