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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Moral Expansiveness Around the World: The Role of Societal Factors Across 36 Countries

Kirkland, K., Crimston, C. R., et al. (2022).
Social Psychological and Personality Science.


What are the things that we think matter morally, and how do societal factors influence this? To date, research has explored several individual-level and historical factors that influence the size of our ‘moral circles.' There has, however, been less attention focused on which societal factors play a role. We present the first multi-national exploration of moral expansiveness—that is, the size of people’s moral circles across countries. We found low generalized trust, greater perceptions of a breakdown in the social fabric of society, and greater perceived economic inequality were associated with smaller moral circles. Generalized trust also helped explain the effects of perceived inequality on lower levels of moral inclusiveness. Other inequality indicators (i.e., Gini coefficients) were, however, unrelated to moral expansiveness. These findings suggest that societal factors, especially those associated with generalized trust, may influence the size of our moral circles.

From the Discussion section

We found a clear link between greater generalized trust and increased moral expansiveness within-countries. Although we cannot be certain of causality, it may be that since trust is the glue that binds relationships, generalized trust may therefore be a necessary ingredient before one can care for strangers and more distant entities. Furthermore, while perceptions of breakdown within leadership (i.e., that government is ineffective and illegitimate) was not predictive of the scope of moral expansiveness, greater perceptions of breakdown in social fabric (e.g., low trust and no shared moral standards) was linked to reduced MES scores. Together this suggests that the relationships between individuals in a society relate to the size of moral circles as opposed to perceptions of those in power.

Low generalized trust was found to mediate the relationship between a higher perceived wealth gap among the rich and the poor and reduced moral expansiveness both within- and between-countries. Prior research has established that high economic inequality is related to reduced generalized trust (Oishi et al., 2011; Uslaner & Brown, 2005; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2007). This is the first work to show it may also be related to how we construct our moral world. However, experimental evidence or support from longitudinal data is needed before we can be certain about directionality. In contrast, perceptions of the breakdown in social fabric did not mediate the relationship between a higher perceived wealth gap among the rich and the poor and reduced moral expansiveness. Although a breakdown in social fabric is characterized by lower generalized trust between citizens, the social fabric concept also encompasses the perception that a shared moral standard among people is lacking (Teymoori et al., 2017). It thus appears to be the specific element of trust, rather than a breakdown in the social fabric more broadly, that mediates the relationship between the perceived wealth gap and moral expansiveness. Although we found a similar mediation effect at both levels of analysis, there was a non-significant tendency for a higher estimate of the wealth gap between countries to be related to greater moral expansiveness.