Judging Moral Character

A matter of principle, not good deeds

Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher
Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher

People may instinctively know right from wrong, but determining if someone has good moral character is not a black-and-white endeavor.

According to new research by Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher, people can do what is considered the wrong thing but actually be judged to be moral for that decision. That’s because we evaluate others’ moral character—being honest, principled, and virtuous—not simply by their deeds, but also by the context that determines how such decisions are made.

Consider a social media company with access to its clients’ personal information and interactions. The government wants access to the user database for terrorist-surveillance purposes, but the CEO must decide whether to violate the company’s privacy code. Is he considered a more moral person by complying with the request, or by refusing it? Critcher’s work shows that even people who think the CEO should hand over the data to the government consider him to have better moral character if he does the opposite and adheres to the privacy policy.

“For the CEO who sticks to a moral rule—even when we think a deviation could be justified—we are more confident he will behave in sensible, principled ways in the future,” Critcher says.

Critcher’s research also found that what differentiates the characteristics of moral character (from positive yet nonmoral attributes) is that such qualities are non-negotiable in social relationships.

“Judgments about moral character are ultimately judgments about whether we trust and would be willing to invest in a person,” says Critcher. His findings, “What Do We Evaluate When We Evaluate Moral Character?” co-authored with Erik Helzer of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, are forthcoming in the Atlas of Moral Psychology (Guilford Press, 2017).

In one experiment, Critcher asked 186 undergraduates to evaluate 40 positive personality traits by rating them on two dimensions: how much each trait reflected moral character and whether the participants would or would not be willing to have a social relationship with someone who lacked that quality.

“The two dimensions were correlated at .87, which means the two are almost the same thing,” Critcher says. “What makes moral traits special is that their absence is a deal breaker, even when compared to qualities that the participants deemed just as positive.”

But did people see these traits as essential because they were seen to be moral? The research team answered that question by leading people to construe the same trait as either moral or nonmoral. Research participants were shown 13 traits that the researchers deemed ambiguously moral. Some participants were first exposed to traits that were clearly nonmoral; afterward, they found the ambiguous traits morally relevant. In contrast, other participants who first saw traits that were clearly moral deemed the ambiguous traits as not morally relevant.

Inducing people to see these 13 ambiguous qualities as moral also caused them to deem these qualities as more essential for their social relationships—in short, good moral character justified a social investment in a person.

“When people first meet someone, they tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to morality,” says Critcher. “It’s an adaptive optimism—one that encourages us to operate on enough faith that we can at least learn whether they are worthy of a social investment—until they prove us wrong.”