In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is moralization.
The term moralization was introduced by psychologist Paul Rozin in the late 1990s to describe the process by which people’s preferences are transformed into values.
Rozin’s research looked at how, for some people, vegetarianism had become a moral issue regarding animals rather than simply a preference. Moralization was associated with feelings of disgust and strong aversion that weren’t seen in people who preferred a vegetarian diet for reasons like potential health benefits. Some vegans view the consumption of any animal products, regardless of treatment, as morally wrong. But unless they expect the lions to stop eating the gazelles and the grizzly bears to stop eating the salmon, that’s selective moralization.
Moralization has also happened with behaviours like cigarette smoking and littering. Both were socially acceptable not all that long ago, but now people tend to view them as morally wrong. Thus, they move from behaviours that aren’t great choices to behaviours that are BAD to the extent that they can start to tarnish the whole person as BAD.
How we moralize
On an individual level, moralization can occur in a couple of key ways. Moral expansion involves the creation of brand new moral beliefs that are based on new learning or experiences. Moral piggybacking occurs when a new idea about something that was previously neutral gets connected to an already-established moral belief.
Religious attitudes can have an influence. Protestant, and particularly Evangelical Protestant, beliefs around the importance of self-control and self-discipline have influenced the moralization of the use of alcohol and drugs.
What’s considered to be a moral issue varies from person to person, and may or may not appear to have much moral relevance to a neutral observer. It’s not clear what causes people to moralize certain issues, although there appear to be both emotional and cognitive factors.
Moralizing health issues
Health issues are often targets of moralization, and Rozin wrote that this arises from “modern Western hypersensitivities to the principal moral doctrine of doing no harm to others.” Addictions and obesity are prime examples. As a result, prejudice against people with those conditions has become socially acceptable. Body-positive advocates are criticized for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, yet the health angle is really just being used as an excuse to fat-shame.
Even taking psychiatric medication has shifted from being a personal/therapeutic preference to something that encompasses a whole moral belief system.
Stephen Pinker says…
Who is Steven Pinker? He’s a psychologist I know and love from his euphemism treadmill concept. He weighs in on moralization, arguing that it’s a psychological state that operates as an on/off switch. He identifies two hallmark beliefs of moralization: that it applies universally (i.e. everyone should view this issue as a moral one), and that there is a moral duty to punish those who carry out an act that’s deemed immoral. When the moralization switch is turned on, we feel:
…the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause.
See why I love Steven Pinker?
He also wrote that “there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviours are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it.”
The way we moralize isn’t rational; rather, we cherry-pick based on our own lifestyle preferences, so unhealthy is wrong, except when it’s that particular unhealthy thing that we really like to do. When we’ve assigned something to be a moral issue rather than a preference, we view that as “a matter of sacred necessity and that the very act of questioning an assignment is a moral outrage.”
Consequences of moralization
We don’t like it when things violate our sense of meaning and how the world works. As a result, we may be intolerant of people with moral worldviews that we see as incompatible with our own. That can be a big problem, as there are a lot of different moral worldviews out there.
Moralization shows up in politics. Liberals are more likely to moralize issues related to harm and fairness rather than group loyalty, authority, and purity, while conservatives tend to moralize more evenly across those five domains. Conservatives then judge liberals for being not moral enough, and liberals like me are intolerant of conservatives for being intolerant. It’s one big ol’ judgy party.
One good thing is that moralization doesn’t have to be permanent. Views around things like divorce, children born out of wedlock, homosexuality, and marijuana use have become less moralized over time. So perhaps we can try to step back, breathe, and try to recognize that our morals are our own and nobody else’s.
Is moralization something you’ve noticed in general, or noticing yourself doing?
- Brandt, M. J., Wetherell, G., Crawford, J. T., et al. (2016). Moralization and intolerance of ideological outgroups. The Social Psychology of Morality, 239.
- Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral Instinct. The New York Times Magazine.
- Rozin, P. (1999). The process of moralization. Psychological Science, (3), 218-221.
- Wikipedia: Moral psychology
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.