Witnessing virtue versus vice: comparing moral praise and moral condemnation

The 2011 UK riots prompted outrage at rampant looting of businesses and admiration of ‘average Joes’ who intervened. Prime Minister David Cameron commented frequently on the ‘sickening acts’ that were witnessed during the looting, as well as the culture of Britain being worryingly ‘morally neutral’. Parents were praised for upholding their moral obligations by judges and politicians when turning to the police if their children were known to be involved in the riots. A BBC article covered international reactions to the events highlighted their emotional nature, with world-wide testimonials that included expressions of shock, disgust, anger and sadness. During and in the wake of the riots, however, ‘moral excellence’ also emerged: individuals banded together to protect their neighbours’ shops and homes, inspiring complete strangers to travel to riot-ravaged areas to assist with the clean-up effort.

Indeed, moral emotion is the driving force in moral judgement, and evidence confirms the importance of both other-condemning (anger, disgust) and other-praising (elevation, gratitude) emotions. The majority of research in moral psychology, however, has focused on condemnation over praise. Contemporary moral psychology can thus be characterised more as the study of moral condemnation than praise.

In this project our primary objective will be to redress the imbalance in moral psychology by investigating whether/how praise differs from condemnation. Based on a well-documented negativity bias and the potential for different evidentiary standards for ‘goodness’ versus ‘badness’, we will test the general hypothesis that people are more motivated and able to condemn than praise—that people are more interested in vice than virtue, that vice is processed more fluently than virtue.

We will also conduct a preliminary investigation of the impact of praise versus condemnation on wellbeing and human flourishing. Research on human flourishing suggests that individuals need to experience approximately three times as much positive as negative affect to live optimally. Our hypothesis that people are more motivated and able to condemn than praise suggests that moral judgement—despite its utility at the societal level for increasing adherence to norms for cooperation and against cheating—may actually threaten individual wellbeing. We will investigate this possibility, with an eye to supporting future research on the relationship between moral judgement and wellbeing.

Our research will provide the first direct comparison of reactions to virtuous versus transgressive behaviour, addressing a significant gap in the moral psychology literature. It will also provide the first investigation of the relative impact of moral condemnation and moral praise on human flourishing. Research has begun to document the beneficial influence of positive moral emotions such as gratitude on individual wellbeing but, to our knowledge, no one has documented the role of negative moral emotions on wellbeing, either on their own or in comparison with positive moral emotions.

Dr Kimberly Quinn
University of Birmingham

Kimberley was awarded a Research Project Grant in June 2012.