Morality and the Self

29 September 2011


Our topic this week is Morality and the Self.  Now most people think of themselves as pretty decent types, maybe not saints, but they tell themselves they're willing to do the right thing most of the time. But if you examine how people actually behave in various situations, situations that put their moral characters to the test,  we don’t actually measure up to our own-self assessments. 

Social psychologists have long known that our evaluations of other people are suspect in certain ways.   More recently, they've uncovered surprising and provocative results about the ways in which people evaluate their own moral characters.   Start with a simple example about evaluating others.  Suppose Alice sees Bob trip over a rock and fall.  Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless.  But if Alice herself tripped over the same rock, she’d be more likely to blame the placement of the rock for her tripping. and not her own clumsiness. 

In evaluating others,  in other words,  people are much more likely to focus on character, to the exclusion of situation, while in evaluating our own actions, we take full account of the effects of the situation.     Social psychologists call this tendency to ignore the effects of the situation in evaluating others the fundamental attribution error.   It’s also called actor-observer bias.  That label highlights our tendency to make moral attributions in one way in our role as first person actor, and in a different way, in our role as third person observer.

Turn now to our evaluation of self.  Clearly we morally evaluate self and other differently, but are we better or worse at evaluating ourselves than we are at evaluating others?   It turns out that self-evaluation turns out to be a pretty tricky thing.   Consider the following scenario that might occur in the workplace. Suppose the boss asks a relatively high-level worker to perform some menial and monotonous task, one that’s way beneath the employee’s pay grade.  Being a team player, the worker does it, even though he doesn’t really want to do it and wouldn’t enjoy doing it. Good for the worker, you might think.

But now suppose that a week or two later, the boss asks another worker, at the same level, to help out with the same task – except this time the worker refuses.   But we have to add a wrinkle here.  Nothing whatsoever happens to the second worker.  The boss accepts his refusal and moves on.  How do you think the first worker will feel? Like a sucker?  I mean it wasn’t his job.  The boss obviously realized that she had no right to expect or demand his compliance.   Plus the worker got absolutely nothing out of it.  That’s the very definition of a sucker,  isn’t it?

Objectively speaking, maybe that’s right.  But that’s not at all the story the worker will tell himself.   He’ll paint himself not as a sucker, but as a saint, as somebody willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, for the sake of the greater good.   And  instead of painting his co-worker, the one who didn’t go along, as someone firm, assertive and willing to stand up for himself, he'll tell himself that the other guy’s just a self-centered jerk, concerned only about his own well-being.  People want to have a positive moral self-image, and they'll do lots of things -- like pumping themselves up, while denigrating others  -- to protect that self-image.  

Or consider  the phenomenon of moral licensing.  People will use the moral credit they think they’ve earned in one situation as a license to engage in behavior that might otherwise be morally problematic.  So for example, people who show a lack of prejudice in one context often feel free to express discriminatory attitudes in a different context, because they give themselves moral credit for their original lack of bias.  Here I’m thinking about studies that show whites and Asians who voted for Obama, are often more comfortable expressing an explicit preference for a white person being given a job over a black person  -- especially if they're allowed to explain that they voted for Obama.  

We think there some deeply disturbing and difficult philosophical questions lurking beneath the surface here.   The phenomenon of actor-observer bias suggests that we aren’t very good at evaluating the moral character of others.  But it turns out that much of what we believe about ourselves may be self-serving confabulation that serves to protect a possibly false self-image.  And we use that delusional self-image as a license for morally problematic behavior.   As philosophers who believe in objective morality, we need to ask whether there are any objective facts about our moral characters.   Could we come to know such facts?  Or is self-serving confabulation really the best that we can do?   And if it is the best that we can do, should we just give up on the very idea of objective moral standards?   Those are some of the questions we’ll put to our guest – the renowned social psychologist, Benoit Monin from Stanford University, who has done much ground-breaking research on morality and the self. 

This weeks program, by the way, was  another in our series of live performances at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco.  Though that means you won’t be able to join our on-air conversation, you can continue the conversation here on this blog by posting a comment.

If you haven’t yet been to one of our live performances either locally at the Marsh or around the country, you need to come check us out.  If I do say so my self,  we put on a great show!  Besides the material you hear on the radio broadcast, there’s a lot that happens at our live events that doesn’t make it on air.  Merle Kessler and his partner in crime Joshua Broady, frequently write and perform original, comedic songs for the occasion (click here for the two from this show).   Our Roving reporter takes full advantage of the fact that we have an audience, a stage, and the ability to show videos to put on quite extended and gripping multi-media versions of her on-air reports.  You get to see John (winner of this year’s Ignoble Prize In Literature for his essay “Structured Procrastination”) and me  (winner of nothing in particular) up close and personal.   And you get to see radio actually being made. 

 I mention this because we’re about to do it again.   Sunday, October 9th, at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District.   If you are anywhere near town that day.  You’ve got to come and check us out.   You can find out more here and you can purchase tickets here.  

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash


Comments (7)

Guest's picture


Thursday, September 29, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I live by a simple moral code

I live by a simple moral code of equality,
And find it just, absolute, universal, and free.
When all is equal all is One.
Be One too.
Just me,

Guest's picture


Friday, September 30, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Many, if not necessarily most

Many, if not necessarily most, of us are pretty decent sorts. Certainly, there are those of us who freely and avidly participate in one or more of the seven deadlies. And among those of us who do not, the libertines raise proverbial red flags on a regular basis. As I seem to recall, Philoso?hy Talk, the blog has addressed relativism before, probably more than once. The Catholic Holy Father has himself railed, albeit beatifically, against relativism and the detrimental role it plays in modern society. Popular culture (and the paradigm shifts it supports) is a huge advocate of the relativistic modus operendi.
And so, morality becomes, uh, old fashioned. For some of us. And as THAT paradigm gains a firmer foothold, those of us who believe ourselves to be pretty decent sorts are joined by those who might not be so much, but who also believe they are. A vicious circle?Or just another new paradigm? Hmmmmmm.

mirugai's picture


Saturday, October 1, 2011 -- 5:00 PM


1. No one admits they are wrong, and
2. It is instinctive to seek confirmation of what one already believes, ergo ?I think I?m a pretty good person.?
The very most you can ask for from others is that they make reference to some source other than their own greed for power and money, for confirmation.
Only philosophers would try to practice ?the examined life? by self-debate. No one else does this. No one is motivated by what they should do; they are motivated by what they want to do; and then they look for, or make up, some non-responsible (i.e., deterministic) reason for their behavior, if they think about it at all.
And always remember: people who want to live in a moral society which complies with very strict moral rules find it very difficult to live among those (or be subject to those) whose practice is antithetical to those moral rules. Such societies are only successful (read: stable) when repression reigns. My friend Louis says American multiversity is stable so long as capitalistic success is thought by all to be the reward for coexistence.
The big, hard question (not addressed in the program) is: what is the reward for acting morally?

Guest's picture


Sunday, October 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

This moral code of equality I

This moral code of equality I speak of goes by many other names:
Einstein's unified field equation
Everything TOE.
And how might One find this truth?
By simply removing any doubt.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 5, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

The high moral ground I

The high moral ground I believe stemmed originally from a generalized feeling to control the universe. Particularly religious laws that evolve to ease the pain of making sound (whatever that means) moral judgements. But what if we are at a moral crossroad where one must only choose one path. An example of this just recently happened to a very close friend of mine. I already made my choice to this matter but if you are placed in a situation whether to abort a fetus, because you have a disease that can potentially kill the pregnant person what does one do? Should there be even a moral question?

Guest's picture


Monday, October 17, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I think Mirugai has nailed it

I think Mirugai has nailed it on those counts he has mentioned. Said counts appear soundly thought out for the question(s) posed. If we follow Bison's logic---if there is/are no moral question(s), then any notion of human consciousness also appears pointless. Oh, and in my humble opinion, no one controls the universe. Well, no one of human proportions anyway. Hmmmm?

Guest's picture


Wednesday, November 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

So we tend to be easier on

So we tend to be easier on ourselves than we are on everybody else. C.S. Lewis covered this phenomenon quite well in Mere Christianity. We consider ourselves "pretty decent types" not because we are, but because if we examine ourselves and find that we are not, we adjust our internal standard until we are again. We don't adjust our standards (whatever they are, everyone has some) for others. And in this we can see the ultimate danger of moral relativism; if I get to set for myself what is right and what is wrong, all of my worst tendencies will eventually come to the fore - and I will excuse myself as I live them out, while still judging others for doing the same thing. It goes pretty much exactly as laid out in Paul's letter to the Romans, 1:20 - 2:1. Even if you have a high moral code of your own, you will not really live by it - you will just adjust its rules or excuse your failings as you go along.
Societies of course do the same thing, so the standards of society will also fail as guides to morals or ethics. The standards of society, like the standards of individuals, are as changeable as the wind, and adjust to the convenience of its controlling members. In any case, "society" is nothing more than a collection of individuals. So there is really no difference between ignoring the standards of "society" than there is in ignoring the standards of my neighbor down the street. There exists no particularly good reason why I should adhere to either one.
I cannot remember who said "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him," but in the case of ethics it is true. The purpose of ethics or morals is to limit behavior - establish things I will or will not do - so they can only work if said ethics or morals come from more than just me, or just the collection of people like me that we call "society." The reality of human nature means we cannot be our own gatekeepers, because we will always in the end be the fox guarding the henhouse.
A set of moral absolutes, founded on something outside of our individual or collective selves, therefore provides the only effective basis for ethics. Anything else will ultimately lead to "do whatever you want" at the individual level, and "might makes right" at the collective level.