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The Limits of Morality in Explaining and Solving Conflict

How the mind interacts with reality mediates effects of moral beliefs.

Key points

  • Individuals seem able to nullify moral judgments from others.
  • How the mind interacts with reality is the underlying rule in human interaction that mediates and restrains effects of moral beliefs.
  • Understanding the distinctions between moral beliefs and cognition of reality is important.

One of the enduring psychological inquiries involves the effort to discover mental rules explaining and deciphering conflicts in human interaction. There is a rampant tendency for people to use morality or some normative beliefs in explaining and dealing with human conflict (e.g., Wheeler & Laham, 2016 ). Particularly, this moral approach views the psychological cause of conflict or disagreement in interpersonal or intergroup processes as generated by one side’s (typically the others’) deviance from moral standards of right and wrong. Therefore, the psychological solution to the conflict involves conveying moral messages to the opponents about their ethical breaches with the expectation that the violators will obtain new moral awareness and take responsibility for discerning and rectifying their attitudes or behavior.

However, individuals seem able to nullify moral judgments from others

For example, a recent study by Wang and Inbar (2020) has shown that politicians in the U.S. Congress have used the same or similar moral languages (including five groups of core moral concepts: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity) extensively for several decades, despite the rivals hold polarized attitudes or tribalism-based opinions and political interests regarding issues.

In the public domain, the intensive exchange of moral accusations and blames via a variety of media in the past year apparently has not closed the deep dissension among people cross political spectrum. A survey by PEW (Nov, 2020) revealed that Americans were polarized on various issues, including health care, migration, the pandemic, and direction of the country.

In addition, despite of senders’ moral persuasion or condemnation to the receivers, some people find it easy to rationalize or even justify the accused wrongdoings or misconduct (including denying responsibility, finding excuses, blaming others/situations for their transgressions). For instance, students who cheat still view themselves as being morally right ( Even criminals are known to use the techniques of neutralization for justifying their odious offenses. It is obvious people possess various defense mechanisms compatible with their own normative beliefs and standards.

The above examples indicate that although the moral advocates regard their messages as objectively valid in enabling the receivers to discern and modify their aberrations, the moral contents are actually individually interpreted regarding their validity to the target issues or conduct. Moral judgements about others seem effortless but what is easy for you is also facile for the opponent to do the same. The others are not passive receivers of your moral judgments. In fact, they are capable of invalidating your communications by reciprocating moral or other types of judgments.

How the cognition or mental representations of reality mediates and restrains effects of moral beliefs

Namely, people experience conflict or frustrations in human interaction, because they have utilized misperceived reality as the guideline for their engagements. In other words, the more accurate ones’ cognition represents or matches reality and they act accordingly, the less conflict they will experience ( Sun, 2019 ). This is because the more accurate we understand evolving reality, which includes the physical and social worlds, contexts and one another’s mental systems and their operations, the more likely we unite with the resources such as auspicious opportunities and individuals; and meanwhile, to evade or transform situational predicament and incompatible persons. Therefore, we can meet our needs for safety, physical, mental, social, interpersonal, intellectual developments, relationship, and other domains (e.g., Sun, 2019). Nevertheless, people often neglect the underlying factor of how their mind misrepresents the reality; instead, they misattribute their experience of invalidation in various settings to violation of value-based moral rules regarding right and wrong.

Perceived reality mediates and restricts the effects of moral judgments in three ways:

First, according to Piaget and Kohlberg, achieving true advanced moral reasoning is possible only through obtaining more complex and accurate mental representations of human reality, including the understandings of individuals’ reciprocal relations with others, community and the society, and others’ intentions.

Second, individuals’ moral evaluations, justification, and decisions often rest on the false assumption that what they know regarding the subject matters and relevant persons is complete and accurate. They do choose facts, but what they can select is controlled by what is available in their cognitive spectrums regarding the relevant reality, which includes alleged facts related to target issues, evolving contexts, one another’s cognitions, motivations, needs, feelings, expectations, and how and why they process, interpret and react to one another’s messages. Misrepresenting these facts will misguide related moral judgments.

Third, individuals’ beliefs and knowledge about changing reality (the physical and social worlds, interpersonal contexts, individual mental structures and processes) are, to a degree, always distorted and incomplete. People can minimize experienced conflict by constantly discerning and bridging a mismatch between the mind and reality. However, three factors may produce or exacerbate individuals’ distorted cognitions about reality. They include: (1) individual cognitive limitations such as insufficient learning experiences, limited language abilities, confirmation bias, political interests, and the belief that what they know on the basis of learned categories represents a complete understanding of the human world. This belief is false, because research has shown that social categorization, though convenient, serves as a source of prejudice, overgeneralization, and stereotype (e.g. Fiske & Taylor, 2008 ): (2) Disinformation or misinformation accompanied by the absence of competing information, and (3) Inauthentic human interactions that incapacitate the participants from discerning and revising or falsifying distorted cognitions of one another.

Only by encountering with new reality can individuals revise their cognition of the reality. Moral judgments, however, are powerless to make them act and think beyond their current cognitive levels. This is because value-based judgments about right or wrong cannot tell individuals if the information is true or false, neither can use of right or wrong judgments determine the laws governing human behavior.

It is an arduous process for a society or individual to obtain new cognition and understand about evolving reality, because uncovering new reality entails discovering true multiple dimensions of target issues by observing, collecting and analyzing testable and verifiable data or facts and it is a never ending process of verification and falsification.

Three reasons why moral beliefs are misconstrued as cognition of reality

First, in contrast to the process of discovering new external reality, applying moral rules appears much easier because the perceivers can reach a sense of certainty about the world by just comparing target issues with their internal two-dimensional standard of right or wrong.

Second, the word “truth” is often semantically associated with some religious or moral doctrines. This confusion also occurred in psychological literature. For example, research on the issue of prejudice tends to use the term “prejudice” to refer to instances of misrepresenting of reality and of violation of normative standards. As Sun’s (1993) analysis suggested, violating normative beliefs and misperceptions of “what is” are two different types of prejudice. The use of a moral value or a justice principle (what ought to be) is unable to rectify prejudice as the type of cognitive distortions of reality, because moral standards cannot determine inaccuracy of one’s cognition.

Third, use of moral beliefs and use of cognition of reality in regulating mental and interpersonal interactions may correspond to the low and high stages of the individual development, respectively. For instance, one of Freud’s insights suggests that the superego (internalized moral rules from the parents and other authority figures) as the internal regulator is dominant in the early developmental stage, whereas the ego that operates on reality principle as the regulator indicates mental maturity in the adulthood. Regarding human society as a developmental system, August Conte also views the societal advancement as defined by three evolving stages regarding the source of knowledge: from the value-based theological stage, to the metaphysical stage, and to the positive or scientific stage in the modern society, where new knowledge and paradigms are generated through observation of evolving reality, scientific methods, experiment, and comparisons.

Understanding the distinctions between moral beliefs and cognition of reality is important

This is because some people in history with moral convictions and intentions have treated what is true as “wrong.” From the burning of written materials in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago to persecute Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and to the disastrous cultural revolutions in several nations in the contemporary time, there are always persons who can find moral justification for suppressing and excluding any facts and ideas deemed morally or ideologically harmful or intolerable. Similarly, false information may be propagated in the name of righteous intention.

In summary , this analysis examines human conflict from the perspective that views individuals as the cognitive systems operating on varying degrees of awareness about the self and others and the physical and social worlds. Moral judgments about events or persons, which depend on perceived reality regarding the subject matters, are unable to determine what is true or false. In Capra’s (2000) words, all the concepts or categories we use to describe the world and regulate our activities are parts of the map, not of the territory. People experience conflict because they regard what is false or partially true as being complete true and use the belief as the guideline for interactions. However, each person’s awareness of reality is developmental and changeable in interacting with new reality.