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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Moral Judgment and Decision Making

Bartels, D. M., and others (2015)
In G. Keren & G. Wu (Eds.)
The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making.

From the Introduction

Our focus in this essay is moral flexibility, a term that we use to capture to the thesis that people are strongly motivated to adhere to and affirm their moral beliefs in their judgments and choices—they really want to get it right, they really want to do the right thing—but context strongly influences which moral beliefs are brought to bear in a given situation (cf. Bartels, 2008). In what follows, we review contemporary research on moral judgment and decision making and suggest ways that the major themes in the literature relate to the notion of moral flexibility. First, we take a step back and explain what makes moral judgment and decision making unique. We then review three major research themes and their explananda: (i) morally prohibited value tradeoffs in decision making, (ii) rules, reason, and emotion in tradeoffs, and (iii) judgments of moral blame and punishment. We conclude by commenting on methodological desiderata and presenting understudied areas of inquiry.


Moral thinking pervades everyday decision making, and so understanding the psychological underpinnings of moral judgment and decision making is an important goal for the behavioral sciences. Research that focuses on rule-based models makes moral decisions appear straightforward and rigid, but our review suggests that they more complicated. Our attempt to document the state of the field reveals the diversity of approaches that (indirectly) reveals the flexibility of moral decision making systems. Whether they are study participants, policy makers, or the person on the street, people are strongly motivated to adhere to and affirm their moral beliefs—they want to make the right judgments and choices, and do the right thing. But what is right and wrong, like many things, depends in part on the situation. So while moral judgments and choices can be accurately characterized as using moral rules, they are also characterized by a striking ability to adapt to situations that require flexibility.

Consistent with this theme, our review suggests that context strongly influences which moral principles people use to judge actions and actors and that apparent inconsistencies across situations need not be interpreted as evidence of moral bias, error, hypocrisy, weakness, or failure.  One implication of the evidence for moral flexibility we have presented is that it might be difficult for any single framework to capture moral judgments and decisions (and this may help explain why no fully descriptive and consensus model of moral judgment and decision making exists despite decades of research). While several interesting puzzle pieces have been identified, the big picture remains unclear. We cannot even be certain that all of these pieces belong to just one puzzle.  Fortunately for researchers interested in this area, there is much left to be learned, and we suspect that the coming decades will budge us closer to a complete understanding of moral judgment and decision making.

A pdf of the book chapter can be downloaded here.