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Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Dark Side of Morality: Group Polarization and Moral Epistemology

Marcus Arvan
Originally published on 12 Dec 19


This paper shows that philosophers and laypeople commonly conceptualize moral truths as discoverable through intuition, argument, or some other process. It then argues that three empirically-supported theories of group polarization suggest that this Discovery Model of morality likely plays a substantial role in causing polarization—a phenomenon known to produce a wide variety of disturbing social effects, including increasing prejudice, selfishness, divisiveness, mistrust, and violence. This paper then uses the same three empirical theories to argue that an alternative Negotiation Model of morality—according to which moral truths are instead created by negotiation—promises to not only mitigate polarization but perhaps even foster its opposite: a progressive willingness to “work across the aisle to settle contentious moral issues cooperatively. Finally, I outline avenues for further empirical and philosophical research.


Laypeople  and  philosophers  tend  to  treat  moral  truths  as discoverable  through  intuition, argument,  or  other cognitive  or  affective  process. However,  we  have  seen that  there  are strong theoretical   reasons—based   on   three   empirically-supported   theories   of   group polarization—to believe this Discovery Model of morality is a likely cause of polarization: a social-psychological phenomenon known to have a wide variety of disturbing social effects. We then saw that there are complementary theoretical reasons to believe that an alternative, Negotiation  Model of  morality  might  not  only  mitigate  polarization  but  actually  foster  its opposite: an increasing willingness for to work together to arrive at compromises on moral controversies. While   this   paper   does   not prove   the   existence   of   the   hypothesized relationships   between   the   Discovery   Model,  Negotiation   Model,   and   polarization,   it demonstrates that there are ample theoretical reasons to believe that such relationships are likely and worthy of further empirical and philosophical research.