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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Making moral principles suit yourself

Stanley, M.L., Henne, P., Niemi, L. et al. 
Psychon Bull Rev (2021). 


Normative ethical theories and religious traditions offer general moral principles for people to follow. These moral principles are typically meant to be fixed and rigid, offering reliable guides for moral judgment and decision-making. In two preregistered studies, we found consistent evidence that agreement with general moral principles shifted depending upon events recently accessed in memory. After recalling their own personal violations of moral principles, participants agreed less strongly with those very principles—relative to participants who recalled events in which other people violated the principles. This shift in agreement was explained, in part, by people’s willingness to excuse their own moral transgressions, but not the transgressions of others. These results have important implications for understanding the roles memory and personal identity in moral judgment. People’s commitment to moral principles may be maintained when they recall others’ past violations, but their commitment may wane when they recall their own violations.

From the General Discussion

 Moral disengagement mechanisms (e.g., distorting the consequences of actions, dehumanizing victims)
help people to convince themselves that their actions are permissible and that their ethical standards need not apply in certain contexts (Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1996; Detert et al., 2008). These disengagement mechanisms are thought to help people to protect their favorable views of themselves.
Note that convincing oneself that a particular action is morally acceptable in a particular context via moral disengagement entails maintaining the same level of agreement with the overarching moral principles; the principle just does not apply in some particular context. In contrast, our findings suggest that by reflecting on their own morally objectionable actions, people’s agreement with the overarching, guiding principles
changes. It is not that the principle does not apply; it is that the principle is held with less conviction.


Normative ethical theories and religious traditions that offer general moral principles are meant to help us to understand aspects of ourselves and our world in ways that offer insights and guidance for living a moral life (Albertzart, 2013; Väyrynen, 2008). Our findings introduce some cause for doubt about the stability of moral principles over time, and therefore, their reliability as accurate indicators of moral judgments and actions in the real world.