Recent research on morality (e.g., studying moral reasoning with trolley dilemma, footbridge dilemma, or the issues of intention vs. outcome) or on its neurological bases has added new literature in moral psychology/philosophy (e.g., Horne, Powell, & Spino, 2013; Koster-Hale, Saxe, Dungan, & Young, 2013). The use of internal morality to explain moral decision and behavior, however, appears to have overlooked the fact the validity of moral values (e.g., right or wrong; fairness, compassion) in guiding moral reasoning and actions is always based on the reality (true or false) judgment of the target issues (a behavior, or event). In other words, internally-valid moral judgments may be totally invalid in explaining or guiding either the self’s actions or serving as moral guidelines for evaluating, explaining, or changing others’ behaviors and thoughts in interpersonal or intergroup situations, if the perceivers’ cognitions about the self’s or interpersonal realities are inaccurate or distorted.

Let’s look at several examples:

Individual moral judgment about oneself, if based on distorted reality judgment, may not indicate one’s actual right or wrong behavior. For instance, depressed persons typically feel excessively guilty, ashamed and anxious as if they have done something gravely immoral or sinful. In reality, however, a depressed person is haunted by a sense of moral violation, typically because of (a) experiencing severe frustrations or invalidations in meeting one’s important needs and (b) misconstruing the negative experiences as caused by self’s violation of some moral standards. They are unaware that the cognitive cause for experiencing the invalidations involves one’s misunderstanding of human behavior or misperceived human reality (see Sun, 2014). Attributing one’s negative experiences to the self’s moral-violation is much easier and more convenient than discerning how the self’s mind misunderstands reality.

Psychopaths, regardless of whether they are in jail or in managerial positions, apparently exhibit the opposite moral tendency. Even though they are constantly encroaching on the rights of others and jeopardizing others’ wellbeing, they do not feel guilty or ashamed or anxious according to their internal moral standards. Their behavior may be best explained not as produced by lack of morality, but as the result of distorted reality judgments — with a total distorted social perception, they misperceive how others feel and think, as well as how others evaluate the psychopaths (see the post: How managerial psychopaths use emotions to manipulate others) and, additionally, they use misrepresented reality to rationalize their harms to the victims.

It is well observed and documented that an employee and the employer tend to have discrepant opinions regarding the fairness of the boss’s criticism of the worker’s performance. Typically, what the employee sees as unfair in the decision is viewed as totally justified by the boss. The conventional explanation would suggest that the discrepancy results from different moral values the two sides hold. The more feasible explanation, nevertheless, suggests that the real reason is that they have different levels of understanding and cognition of the target reality (e.g., the boss uses untrue or incomplete “facts” about the employee as the basis for his decision). In this or similar situations, the use of morality alone can neither discern nor settle the issue.

There are plenty of examples in “intergroup” situations regarding how one group’s moral justifications for its actions are generated and upheld by its distorted perceptions of social reality of another group. Take racial profiling as an example. Some police officers who engage in racial profiling truly believe that the practice is not based on prejudice but on the probability regarding the correlation between race and deviance. In this situation, the attempt to rely on moral education to reduce or eliminate the practice will be futile if their misperceived reality used to rationalize racial profiling remains unchanged (Sun, 2011).

Why does morality depend upon the cognition of reality?

It was the cognitively based moral development theories of Piaget and Kohlberg that first specified that cognitive development about reality is necessary for moral growth. Kohlberg maintains that one’s moral stages change only when the contents of the cognition expand from self (egocentricity), immediate others (e.g., parents, siblings), community, one’s own society, other coexisting societies, to the globe. Combined with research findings in social psychology, it is ascertained that the perception (or misperception) of what is (reality judgment) influences the perception (or misperception) of what ought to be (moral judgment). Although David Hume first discussed the “is vs. ought” question, he did not recognize that “is” or reality can be misperceived.

It should be recognized that morality or moral judgment is value-based and concerns the issue of right and wrong or good or bad (all the moral constructs, such as obligation/duty and rights consequences and intentions, relativism, consequentialist theory, utilitarianism, deontology, are about values). On the other hand, reality judgment is fact-based judgments, concerns the issue of true or false regarding the natural and social worlds (e.g. human behaviors and their causal relationships, events and situations). Moral judgments are easier than reality judgments because of the two dimensions of right or wrong. Reality judgments are much more difficult because they entail discovering true multiple dimensions of target issues and interrelations among the entities (e.g., human behavior, structural, special, temporary, causal relations, experiences, contexts, etc.) by observing, collecting and analyzing testable and verifiable data or facts.

 Why do people misrepresent reality?

Reality involves the changing social and natural worlds. One’s cognition of reality is shaped by many factors, including individual learning experiences and knowledge, motivation, language abilities, availability of accurate information, political, social and/or cultural contexts that may either undermine or facilitate developing accurate cognitions of the physical and social realities.

Some implications:

a) Moral judgments of an issue cannot transcend what people know about the issue.

b) Morally right decisions may not guarantee their validity if they are based on false or distorted facts in either the individual or interpersonal domains.

c) Diversity cultural education that intends to reduce prejudice needs to focus more on the issue of developing more accurate cognitions of social reality.


Horne, Z., Powell, D., & Spino, J. (2013). Belief updating in moral dilemmas. Review Of Philosophy And Psychology, 4(4), 705-714. doi:10.1007/s13164-013-0159-y

Koster-Hale, J., Saxe, R., Dungan, J., & Young, L. L. (2013). Decoding moral judgments from neural representations of intentions. PNAS Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 110(14), 5648-5653.

Sun, K. (2011). Examining racial profiling from a cognitive perspective. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 1(13) [Special Issue], 65-69.

Sun, K. (2014). Treating Depression and PTSD behind Bars: An Interaction Schemas Approach. In R. C. Tafrate and D. Mitchell (Eds.), Forensic CBT: A handbook for clinical practice (Chap. 22, pp. 456-470). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

The Justice and Responsibility League

What makes for an upstanding citizen?
Key Sun Ph.D.

Key Sun, Ph.D., is a psychologist and social worker. He has taught at Central Washington University and Bastyr University.

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