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

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Chapter One - Moral inconsistency

Effron, D.A, & Helgason, B.A. 
Advances in Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 67, 2023, Pages 1-72


We review a program of research examining three questions. First, why is the morality of people's behavior inconsistent across time and situations? We point to people's ability to convince themselves they have a license to sin, and we demonstrate various ways people use their behavioral history and others—individuals, groups, and society—to feel licensed. Second, why are people's moral judgments of others' behavior inconsistent? We highlight three factors: motivation, imagination, and repetition. Third, when do people tolerate others who fail to practice what they preach? We argue that people only condemn others' inconsistency as hypocrisy if they think the others are enjoying an “undeserved moral benefit.” Altogether, this program of research suggests that people are surprisingly willing to enact and excuse inconsistency in their moral lives. We discuss how to reconcile this observation with the foundational social psychological principle that people hate inconsistency.


The benefits of moral inconsistency

The present chapter has focused on the negative consequences of moral inconsistency. We have highlighted how the factors that promote moral inconsistency can allow people to lie, cheat, express prejudice, and reduce their condemnation of others' morally suspect behaviors ranging from leaving the scene of an accident to spreading fake news. At the same time, people's apparent proclivity for moral inconsistency is not all bad.

One reason is that, in situations that pit competing moral values against each other, moral inconsistency may be unavoidable. For example, when a friend asks whether you like her unflattering new haircut, you must either say no (which would be inconsistent with your usual kind behavior) or yes (which would be inconsistent with your usual honest behavior; Levine, Roberts, & Cohen, 2020). If you discover corruption in your workplace, you might need to choose between blowing the whistle (which would be inconsistent with your typically loyal behavior toward the company) or staying silent (which would be inconsistent with your typically fair behavior; Dungan, Waytz, & Young, 2015; Waytz, Dungan, & Young, 2013).

Another reason is that people who strive for perfect moral consistency may incur steep costs. They may be derogated and shunned by others, who feel threatened and judged by these “do-gooders” (Howe & Monin, 2017; Minson & Monin, 2012; Monin, Sawyer, & Marquez, 2008; O’Connor & Monin, 2016). Or they may sacrifice themselves and loved ones more than they can afford, like the young social worker who consistently donated to charity until she and her partner were living on 6% of their already-modest income, or the couple who, wanting to consistently help children in need of a home, adopted 22 kids (MacFarquhar, 2015). In short, we may enjoy greater popularity and an easier life if we allow ourselves at least some moral inconsistency.

Finally, moral inconsistency can sometimes benefit society. Evolving moral beliefs about smoking (Rozin, 1999; Rozin & Singh, 1999) have led to considerable public health benefits. Stalemates in partisan conflict are hard to break if both sides rigidly refuse to change their judgments and behavior surrounding potent moral issues (Brandt, Wetherell, & Crawford, 2016). Same-sex marriage, women's sexual liberation, and racial desegregation required inconsistency in how people treated actions that were once considered wrong. In this way, moral inconsistency may be necessary for moral progress.