From the Archives: Subjective Objectivity

This post is from a MMPL Journal Club meeting earlier in the year, first posted on my PhD blog. 

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The paper under discussion was Why are some moral beliefs perceived to be more objective than others? by Goodwin and Darley (2012). The starting point in this paper is the idea that people can think about moral beliefs either as true facts about the world, or as subjective preferences. Or rather, these two options can be considered as opposite ends of an “objectivity spectrum”, and people’s ideas about their moral beliefs will fall somewhere along this spectrum. Goodwin and Darley specifically wanted to investigate variability in perceived objectivity of moral beliefs, and also find out what predicts such variability.

Three questions were posed, and answered.

Does the valence of moral beliefs predict perceived objectivity?
The answer, it appears, is yes. Immoral acts were thought by participants to be more objectively wrong, than good acts were thought to be objectively right.This fits well with the well-established principle of ‘negativity dominance’ (Goodwin & Darley, 2012), but of course it does also ‘push the question one step further back’ – where does  negativity dominance come from in the first place? During our discussion we also found that this finding fits really well with some of our ideas about moral identity, but I’ll save those ideas for later.

Does the perceived consensus pertaining to a moral belief predict its perceived objectivity?
This question was investigated in both a correlational study, and in a an experiment. In a nut-shell, yes. If people think that more people agree about a moral judgment, they are more likely to think of it as objective, as well.

Are objective moral beliefs associated with ‘closed’ responses to moral disagreement?
Apparently, a philosopher named Snare (1992) has argued that if you hold your moral beliefs to be objective, then you should be more open in the face of moral disagreement, because you think there is some “fact of the matter” to resolve, and “new information is valuable”. Goodwin and Darley’s findings, on the other hand, show that “holding an objective view of a moral belief is associated with a more ‘closed’ response to disagreement, manifested in greater discomfort and more perjorative attributions towards a disagreeing other.” The “greater discomfort” they are referring to was measured by an item about having a disagreeing person as a room-mate.

I don’t necessarily think that the arguments of Snare and Goodwin & Darley are completely incompatible. Snare (1992) may still turn out to be wrong about how people respond to moral disagreement, but to me his ideas highlight the subtle ways in which the perceived objectivity of actual facts, and the perceived objectivity of moral beliefs, may differ slightly. Picture, for example, the discomfort you might feel from sharing a room with someone who believes the world is flat. Is that the same discomfort you would feel from sharing a room with someone who believes murder is okay? Yet I imagine you’d think both are pretty well mistaken.

Another way of summarizing the above paragraph, is to say that while Goodwin and Darley place the objectivity of facts on the same scale as the perceived objectivity of moral beliefs, I think there may be a difference in kind, as well as a difference in degree, of objectivity. But, that remains to be tested.

Other things we we discussed
We didn’t actually go into this in much detail, but I do wonder a little about the operationalization of their “objectivity” construct. Two questions were designed to measure objectivity: “Do you think there is a correct answer as to whether this statement is true?” (With the statements mostly being of the kind “It is wrong to…” ) and, given an arbitrary disagreeing “other”, “To what extent is the other person mistaken, or need neither be mistaken?” (I’m paraphrasing, by the way.) Is this the best, or the only, way to measure objectivity? How about comparisons to “actual” facts? Or comparisons to taste?

The scenarios used were very varied, and so it is possible (though not likely?) that there is some other variable that can account for their results, rather than just the wrongness of the scenario. However, we didn’t find, nor look for very hard, this other potential variable.

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There was a little bit more to it than this, but it made less sense six months down the track. For now, I hope you have a (objectively) good weekend! :)

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