Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

How and Why People Want to Be More Moral

Sun, J., Wilt, J. A., et al. (2022, October 13).


What types of moral improvements do people wish to make? Do they hope to become more good, or less bad? Do they wish to be more caring? More honest? More loyal? And why exactly do they want to become more moral? Presumably, most people want to improve their morality because this would benefit others, but is this in fact their primary motivation? Here, we begin to investigate these questions. Across two large, preregistered studies (N = 1,818), participants provided open-ended descriptions of one change they could make in order to become more moral; they then reported their beliefs about and motives for this change. In both studies, people most frequently expressed desires to improve their compassion and more often framed their moral improvement goals in terms of amplifying good behaviors than curbing bad ones. The strongest predictor of moral motivation was the extent to which people believed that making the change would have positive consequences for their own well-being. Together, these studies provide rich descriptive insights into how ordinary people want to be more moral, and show that they are particularly motivated to do so for their own sake.

From the General Discussion section

Self-Interest is a KeyMotivation for Moral Improvement

What motivates people to be more moral? From the perspective that the function of morality is to suppress selfishness for the benefit of others (Haidt & Kesebir, 2010; Wolf, 1982), we might expect people to believe that moral improvements would primarily benefit others (rather than themselves). By a similar logic, people should also primarily want to be more moral for the sake of others (rather than for their own sake).

Surprisingly, however, this was not overwhelmingly the case. Instead, across both studies, participants were approximately equally split between those who believed that others would benefit the most and those who believed that they themselves would benefit the most(with the exception of compassion; see Figure S2). The finding that people perceive some personal benefits to becoming more moral has been demonstrated in recent research (Sun & Berman, in prep). In light of evidence that moral people tend to be happier (Sun et al., in prep) and that the presence of moral struggles predicts symptoms of depression and anxiety (Exline et al., 2014), such beliefs might also be somewhat accurate.  However, it is unclear why people believe that becoming more moral would benefit themselves more than it would others. Speculatively, one possibility is that people can more vividly imagine the impacts of their own actions on their own well-being, whereas they are much more uncertain about how their actions would affect others—especially when the impacts might be spread across many beneficiaries.

However, it is also possible that this finding only applies to self-selected moral improvements, rather than the universe of all possible moral improvements. That is, when asked what they could do to become more moral, people might more readily think of improvements that would improve their own well-being to a greater extent than the well-being of others. But, if we were to ask people to predict who would benefit the most from various moral improvements that were selected by researchers, people may be less likely to believe that it would be themselves. Future research should systematically study people’s evaluations of how various moral improvements would impact their own and others’ well-being.

Similarly, when explicitly asked for whose sake they were most motivated to make their moral improvement, almost half of the participants admitted that they were most motivated to change for their own sake (rather than for the sake of others).  However, when predicting motivation from both the expected well-being consequences for the self and the well-being consequences for others, we found that people’s perceptions of personal well-being consequences was a significantly stronger predictor in both studies.  In other words, if anything, people are relatively more motivated to make moral improvements for their own sake than for the sake of others.  This is consistent with the findings of another study which examined people’s interest in changing a variety of moral and nonmoral traits, and showed that people are particularly interested in improving the traits that they believed would make them relatively happier (Sun & Berman, in prep). Here, it is striking that personal fulfilment remains the most important motivator of personal improvement even exclusively in the moral domain.