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Sunday, January 22, 2023

No Peace for the Wicked? Immorality is (Usually) Thought to Disrupt Intrapersonal Harmony

Prinzing, M., & Fredrickson, B.
(2022, November 28). 


Past research has found that people who behave morally are seen as happier than people who behave immorally—even when their psychological states are described identically. This has led researchers to conclude that the ordinary concept of happiness includes a role for moral factors as well as psychological states. In three experiments (total N = 1,185), we found similar effects of moral evaluations on attributions of a range of psychological states, including positive attitudes towards one’s life and activities (Study 1), pleasant and unpleasant emotions in general (Studies 2-3) and life-satisfaction (Studies 2-3). This suggests that moral evaluations have pervasive effects on the psychological states that people attribute to others. We propose that this is because immorality is seen as disrupting intrapersonal harmony. That is, immoral people are thought to be less happy because they are thought to experience less positive psychological states, and this occurs when and because they are seen as being internally conflicted. Supporting this explanation, we found that immoral agents are seen as more internally conflicted than moral agents (Study 2), and that the effect of moral evaluations on positive psychological state attributions disappears when agents are described as being at peace with themselves (Study 3).

Implications and Conclusion

We set out to better understand why moral evaluations affect happiness judgments.  One possibility is that, when people judge whether another person is happy, they are partly assessing whether that person experiences positive psychological states and partly assessing whether the person is living a good life. If that were so, then people would not consider immoral agents entirely  happy—even if they recognized that the agents experience overwhelmingly positive psychological states.  That is, morality does not affect the experiential states the people attribute to others—it affects whether they consider such states happiness.  Yet, this research suggests a more striking conclusion.  Our results indicate that people attribute experiential states, like pleasant emotions and satisfaction, differently depending on their moral judgments.  Moreover, we found that this occurs when and because immorality is seen as a source of intrapersonal conflict. When people do not see immoral agents as more conflicted than moral agents, they do not attribute less happiness (or less positive emotion or less life-satisfaction) to those immoral agents. On the lay view, immorality typically means betraying one’s true self, disrupting one’s inner harmony, and leading to at best an incomplete form of happiness.  However, this is not always the case.

Hence, the ordinary concept of happiness appears to be similar to ancient Greek conceptions  of eudaemonia (Aristotle,  2000;  Plato,  2004).  Roughly  speaking, Plato believed that eudaemonia consists in a kind of intrapersonal harmony.  He also argued that moral virtue was necessary for such harmony. Our findings suggest that 21st century Americans similarly see happiness as involving a kind of intrapersonal harmony. However, they don’t seem to think that harmony requires morality. Although immorality is usually a source of intrapersonal conflict, someone who behaves immorally can be happy so long as they can still find peace with themselves.  Hence, according to folk wisdom, there may be very little peace for the wicked. But so long as they find it, there can be happiness too.