In the Eye of the Beholder

The science of social perception.

Judging Thou Shalt vs. Thou Shalt Not

Judging sins of commission versus sins of omission

Virtually every religious tradition in the world has some version of the "Golden Rule". But sometimes there are subtle differences in the way the rule is stated. Compare, for example, "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise (Luke 6:31)" with "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)". Are the two statements essentially saying the same thing, or might they perhaps highlight a crucial distinction in the psychology of moral reasoning?

The first statement is more about the presence of absence of good deeds. The second is more about the presence or absence of sin. But how do the two types of sins and two types of good deeds compare in people minds? Do people consider performing a good deed (e.g., telling a cashier that you received $5 too much change) and refraining from sin (not taking $5 from the open register while the cashier isn't looking) to be of equivalent moral goodness? On the other side of the coin, do people consider performing a sin (taking the $5 from the register) to be equivalent to refraining from a good deed (not telling the cashier when you got $5 too much back)?

At first glance, it may seem intuitive that all actions should fall along a single morality dimension, with heinous actions on one extreme and saintly actions on the other. Any act that has one more degree of evil also has, by definition, one less degree of goodness - end of story. But that does not seem to be how most people see it. A growing wave of studies in social psychology has begun to suggest that the human mind understands moral behavior in a more complex manner. Praise and condemnation are not mirror images of each other. Instead, there is an imbalance between the "doing" and "not-doing" of positive and negative actions.

For example, in recent studies social psychologists Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Sana Sheikh, and Sebastian Hepp have found that people judge a proscriptive sin (performing a "thou shalt not") more harshly than not engaging in prescriptive action (refraining from performing a "thou shalt). At the same time, people judge performing a "thou shalt" more praiseworthy than avoiding a "thou shalt not". Thus, people make critical distinctions between varieties of good and bad deeds. Of the two Golden Rules stated above, people seem to heap more condemnation onto violators of the Talmudic Golden Rule than Luke's Golden Rule.

In further studies, social psychologists Scott Wiltermuth, Benoit Monin, and Rosalind Chow reasoned that if people judge good deeds and sins along a single good-bad continuum, then those people who care more deeply about moral behavior should show a greater tendency to condemn sinners and praise do-gooders compared to people who care less about moral behavior. Wiltermuth and colleagues asked participants to rate a series of actors on how moral they were on a scale ranging from -10 (extremely immoral) to +10 (extremely moral). The actors were described as typically performing a variety of good deeds (e.g., "Zelda tells cashiers if she receives too much change back"), sins of commission (e.g., Kevin regularly lies to his friends and colleagues if he stands to gain from doing so") or sins of omission (e.g., "Despite many attempts from interested women, Bill has never cheated on his wife"). They found that the tendency to blame sinners did not go hand-in-hand with the tendency to praise do-gooders. Moreover, they found that people who (through questionnaires) identified themselves as more concerned with morality likewise showed no relationship between their ratings of sins and good deeds. So it seems that the degree to which people are impressed by good deeds is unconnected with the degree to which they are appalled by bad deeds.

Why are sins and good deeds so disconnected in people minds? Part of the answer may be that these types of findings represent just one example of a more general human tendency. Researchers such as John Cacioppo and colleagues of the University of Chicago have suggested that when we evaluate something, we do not ask, "How good/bad is it?" Instead we ask two separate and simultaneous questions: "How good is it?" and "How bad is it?" The answer to one often has surprisingly little influence on the other. In other words, certain acts can be both high in moral goodness and high in moral badness. That is how we can find ourselves feeling powerful moral ambivalence toward acts that are simultaneously good and evil - for example, killing one person in order to save five lives.

So it may be that the two famous Golden Rules quoted above each capture only half of the psychology of moral reasoning. Given the general human tendency to consider both the presence and absence of good and the presence and absence of bad, perhaps the best and most all-encompassing advice would be: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you...and don't do unto others as you would not have them do unto you."

References:
Janoff-Bulman, R., Sheikh, S., & Hepp, S. (2009). Proscriptive versus prescriptive morality: Two faces of moral regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 521-537.

Wiltermuth, S.S., Monin, B., & Chow, R.M. (2010). The orthogonality of praise and condemnation in moral judgment. Social and Personality Psychology Science, 1, 302-310.

Cacioppo, J.T., Gardner, W.L., & Berntson, G.G. (1997). Beyond bipolar conceptualizations and measures: The case of attitudes and evaluative space. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 3-25.

 

Jason Plaks, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

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