What Is… Moralization: When Preferences Become Values

Moralization: diagram of the consequences of preferences converting to values

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?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

42 thoughts on “What Is… Moralization: When Preferences Become Values”

  1. Never realized this way of thinking had a specific name – I’ve always thought of it as people being pretentious little holier than thou twits…

  2. Thanks for this – had not thought about this in this way. For me this topic revolves around a person’s propensity to judge others for their beliefs or their moral positions. In my case even if I disagree with that person, I make it up in my mind to TRY not to judge them – not saying I do this successfully all the time. Getting caught up with the whole judgey mindset never did me any good. Best to ignore it and leave the judgmental piece to a higher being?

  3. Both. I tend to view eating as moral or immoral because of my disorder. If I’ve eaten lightly/healthfully, I think of myself as having been “good.” And the opposite holds. It’s destructive though, since feeling bad about myself is demotivating. I do tend to silently judge others, though never as harshly as myself 😞

  4. Hmm, I agree with part of what you say, but when there are legitimate health risks to those other than oneself, with smoking and porn, for example, I’m not sure that it is moralization being used as an excuse to shame. In those cases, I think morality is being used as another weapon in the arsenal against harm to others, where the damage is done by perpetrators who see themselves as committing a “victim-less crime” and being persecuted. Smoke goes everywhere and lingers, being carred, as we ,now know, even able to do damage via 3rd-hand smoke, and porn leads to and encourages a wide variety of crimes, mostly against vulnerable women and children. In those cases, I tend to see morality as a legitimate tool in the struggle to get people to actually have a conscience and stop actions that harm others.

    1. I think we’re all selective in terms of indirect harm, though, so if you’re going to moralize people watching porn you could moralize the large numbers of people wearing clothes made in Bangladesh or people who fly on airplanes or what have you. I think it’s probably more effective to target specific problems and do something about them rather than trying to convince people that what they’re doing is morally wrong.

      1. You may be right, as the smokers and porn types will likely never care that they harm other people, so it’s likely useless to try to convince them of their moral wrongness, but it remains morally wrong to harm others, especially when those harmed can do nothing to protect themselves from the harm that one is doing.

        1. That casts a wide net, makes a lot of assumptions, and judges people for causing harm even when then’s there’s no traceable path of harm. My best friend and I fall into those morally wrong “types”, although for opposite reasons. You’re free to judge, but that’s not going to change anything.

          1. I’m not trying to judge, I’m trying to help people see the harm that they do to others. I’m looking for a way to mitigate that harm, not to judge, and I also fall into several wrong types, just not the smoking/drinking/drugs/porn/booze type. So I think you and I are in the same boat, really.

          2. Hey, I did not mean to make you feel judged, and if I said anything wrong, Ashley, please accept my apologies. I consider you to be a very good person, and you must know that from our interactions, I hope?

      2. Hm I just scrolled to these comments, which I’d not read before leaving my comment. I agree with what Shiradest is saying as far as the moral aspect of smoking and porn addictions doing harm to others. I’m not super into N.A. but when I read their literature, they make a thing about how addiction affects the important relationships in one’s life.

        However as I read Ashley’s reply I think I agree with her as to the approach. Even if something is morally wrong, I’m not sure it is useful to emphasize this when we are dealing with an addiction. It might be a fine line, but the addicted person seeking help probably feels bad enough about the addiction already without having to be made to feel like it’s a moral issue, rather than a physical / psychological one.

        If they’re seeking help then no doubt they already know that their addictive behavior affects others. It would be more helpful imo to address the core issues of why they are drawn to self-destructive behaviors in the first place. If they can get past that, then the corollary moral issues won’t arise.

        1. I would argue that we all do a great many things that have the potential to cause harm to others. Whether it’s clothes made in garment factories made in Bangladesh, jewellery with gemstones mined under poor conditions, things made in China that we don’t realize are made using Uighur forced labour, or driving a car when the chances of harming someone in a car accident are higher than the chances of many other potential harms, there’s a lot to choose from, yet people cherry-pick what they want to get on their moral high horse about.

          People don’t have to morally approve personally of an activity, but to project those expectations onto others, and to feel not only entitled but obliged to do so, seems rather hypocritical. Unhealthy and immoral don’t inherently have to go hand in hand; that’s a choice that people make, and a privileged choice at that. And if we start talking about things that have the potential to be harmful, or that people are assuming must have caused harm in the past, or that appear to be harmful in a nebulous, non-specific sense, and saying that’s immoral, that’s a black hole that you can throw pretty much anything into. Perhaps we should start calling it immoral for people to have kids because those kids will probably end up harming someone somehow at some point in their lives.

          As for addiction, whether that’s smoking or anything else, if we haven’t gotten past moralizing that yet then we have a long way to go. Maybe we should go back to calling mental illness a moral failure, too. And bring on the fat-shaming!

          1. I wish I were sleeping better these days, because getting only five hours of sleep a night for the last couple weeks is affecting my ability to grasp the nuances of this topic. The topic fascinates me but either it’s too complex for my limited intellectual capacities or it just seems that way because I’m not as coherent or sharp as I think I usually am.

            I think I understand what you’re saying Ashley but am not sure. I’m hung up on the difference between “moralization” which I would interpret as disrespectful behavior (since it doesn’t respect the recipient’s right to choose their own moral values), and “morality” which for me is a different subject, because I’m a person who tries (and often fails by the way) to adhere to an absolute moral standard in which I believe fully.

            If you’re saying that we shouldn’t apply moral values to the treatment of addictions and other psychological or physiological conditions, I agree completely. If you’re suggesting that morality has no place in the conversation at all, I disagree.

            When I was homeless, I would occasionally get into a halfway house in the hope of gradually getting out of homelessness through a program, first into transitional housing while saving up money for a deposit on an apartment. Many times in the halfway house I felt criminalized. I felt as though I were being punished for having landed on the streets. This translated to a feeling that I was “being punished for seeking help.”

            Having that in my background, I came to the conclusion long ago that there ought to be no punitive aspect applied toward people who willfully seek help for their problems on their own accord. But I think that it’s very difficult for the social workers in those contexts to distinguish those who are legitimately seeking help from those who have other motives (such as to stay out of jail or work the system in some way). So I understand how the punitive aspect arises.

            Still it never helped me. Along those lines, people moralizing at me over my issues may have helped when I was a child, say if it were my mother trying to teach me right from wrong. But it hasn’t worked in adulthood. All it has done is play into my already very low self-esteem, and make it even lower. A person who feels like a piece of shit doesn’t need to be continually reminded of that feeling.

            1. I would say that morality is one’s personal belief system, whereas moralization focuses on specific issues and the expectation that other people should a) also see it as a moral issue, and b) adhere to the same moral stance as the moralizer.

              So, to make up an example, my own morality might lead me to choose to be vegetarian because I’m not comfortable with harming animals. I may not be thrilled about other people eating meat, but it only becomes moralization if I start trying to beat other people over the head with it and telling them that they’re doing something immoral by eating meat.

              When it comes to things like homelessness, the “you are shit” attitudes probably come at least in part from moral judgments that someone must have done something wrong to be homeless, and that something may well have been choosing to use drugs. Of course that’s nonsense, but that can happen when people take a stance of right vs. wrong rather than trying to understand the nuances and complexity of the situation. Moralizing takes judgements about behaviours and transforms that into judgments about the person, but single behaviours don’t define a person or the moral/value system.

            2. That’s right, and was well-put. That’s what I thought you were saying, but I wasn’t sure. What I’m trying to say is that, although I personally believe in absolute moral standard, I respect the rights of people to choose their own moral codes. Moralization denies people of that right.

  5. Interesting. I didn’t know the definition of “moralization” till just now. As a person who believes in an absolute moral standard, I probably come across as though I am moralizing sometimes. From my perspective, I would only be citing what I believe to be objectively true. But that belief — that my moral standard is objectively true — is subjective. People who differ with the moral paradigm to which I adhere would view some of my statements as moralization.

    For example, I believe it is absolutely wrong to engage in casual sex outside of a committed relationship. That belief is not only unpopular but arguable. Two consenting adults are not harming anyone — at least not at that time and in that context. But because of the possible adverse consequences of people engaging in sex without commitment, I avoid that encounter. I also try not to judge people who do, but it’s kinda hard to do so when I see having all kinds of problems — dealing with jealous suitors, in some cases STD’s and the need for abortions, etc.

    More often, however, I feel that someone is moralizing something along the lines of the examples you mentioned. I was once bombarded by not only a Vegan, but a prosyletizing Keto diet adherent, as well as a third person who sent me dietary principles I’d never heard of before.

    Because they were preaching at me, I told them that my diet is based on Mark 7:14-23 and Romans 14, especially 14:2. Since nobody likes to be preached at, that shut ’em up. (Guess I gave them a taste of their own medicine.) .

  6. I have come a long way in my values section. I do not like smoke, but, it is their right to have that cigarette. I do not drink alcohol, but, it is their right to pour some whiskey.
    Some may have objections about some things I may do, like, drinking too much coffee, or watching too much of the cable news channels.
    A late preacher friend of mine told me this, “what might be sin to one, may not be sin to another”. I didn’t understand that statement for years, but, that is how I try to be in my life.

  7. Good food for thought. The bit about religious influence rang particularly clear, as my particular flavor of religion – Mormonism – is fairly puritanical about a lot of human action. Sex is an area where that is strongly applied. I had someone tell me, a long time ago, that I had such curious notions of sexuality because of the Mormon influence on my upbringing. I see in hindsight that my views weren’t curious at all, they were on the modest side though. Which isn’t a bad thing. Anyone doing ‘moralizing’ is at fault in my opinion though. To me, addressing the ‘bad’ behavior (addiction, excesses etc etc) is what ought to be done and leave the moralization out of the equation. It does smack of ‘holier than thou’ whoever is doing it.

  8. Younger Child says there’s lots of moralizing over obesity on social media, especially young males criticizing and denigrating females.

    Plants have value to us, personally, and we feel more connected to some flowers and trees then to certain animals. We think monoculture agriculture is a violent abuse of nature.

    Still, we respect that some people don’t eat animals because they despise hurting sentient creatures, or for other reasons. Even if plants and/or fungi prove to be sentient, people can still choose their own values without input or judgment from everyone else.

    Mutual respect feels awesome

  9. I think there is definitely more awareness now as to how personal behaviors can influence other people indirectly, such as smoking leading to more health risks and thus meaning health services are more likely to be overwhelmed. But when there is obsession over morality and people end up judging others for their actions due to this, then morality isn’t such a good thing.

      1. This was what I was trying to say, Ashley, and thank you, Victoria: that not moralizing, nor judging, but getting people to change hurtful behaviours is my goal. I would not consider a smoker to be an inherently bad person, persay, and in fact the only person I would ‘moralize’ about, I think, would be someone who enjoyed torture, literally: but that is more from the danger-to-others point of view.

  10. Moralization is leading to the destruction of freedom of speech, expression, art, thought etc. It’s dangerous, divisive and so very very subjective. Like that old story of the word “normal”. ‘What’s normal for the spider is chaos for the fly’… and morality is becoming chaotic too.

    Sharon 💜

  11. This rings true to my heart💕

    My Master’s dissertation is about animal right literature. At the beginning, based on my reading and preferences, I had made it into a moral issue, inevitably judging human actions. After my graduation, as I read more and more, I have started to move away from the side of personal morality to focusing my attention on our human culture in general or the bigger human systems. I try to see this as our collective efforts to be a moral person or animal lover.

    If there are people who cannot accept my view, I will take a step back instantly without ruining the relationship further then move on to the next person or group who is more comfortable with my true self.

    1. It reminds me of the motivational interviewing approach. Change is more likely to happen if people can be supported in finding their own motivation with regards to issues like caring about animal welfare. Trying to tell people what to do or what to believe is likely to result in them doing the opposite.

  12. I expected to disagree with this post. I definitely agree that there are a lot of problems with this moralization and its effect on society and public discourse. But my concern is that opposing moralization sounds a lot like moral relativism, which I am not a fan of. (If child sacrifice is morally wrong in my culture, how can I shrug and say “you do you” to another culture that sees no problem with it?)
    But I found that I agree with many of the points here and in the comments. We are all selective about which things we get on our high horse about. Even here, Of course I picked child sacrifice and not eating animal products because I’m not a vegan. I still think there is no equating child sacrifice and smoking or fat-shaming or eating non-vegan, or driving a car, or homosexual sex, but the mindset is not far off and I can see where the mindset can do more harm than good.
    It would be lovely if we could all agree on the absolute moral no-no’s and let everything else be, but that seems unlikely.
    On a separate note, this is one of the best comment sections I have read on a post. Well done, Ashleyleia for cultivating a commmunity of thoughtful and respectful readers!

    1. Thanks!

      I think moral absolutes come in where there is certainty that there will be a direct harm to others with a clear cause and effect relationship. If I am abusing a child at home, I am harming them, without question. But if I get in my car and drive through a school zone, there is the potential that I could cause direct harm, but the certainty is low. If I buy cheap clothing, there’s the possibility that there is indirect harm if there are children working in a garment factory, but I have no way of knowing if my purchase as an individual act is contributing to harm. If I were to watch child porn, there is 100% certainty that a child was harmed, although not directly by me. If I were to watch adult porn, there is a possibility that someone involved was harmed, but I have no way of knowing.

      I think it gets murkier with something like abortion because it’s a weighing of harms, and where one places the most weight is heavily influenced by religion. In that case, my own belief is that people should make choices based on their own beliefs without trying to impose them on others.

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