Morality: Our Hidden Influences

Greetings fellow moralist,

Before we begin I would like to pose the following questions, have you ever:

  • Been bemused at how someone could not see you were right during an argument?
  • Felt some things are just plain wrong despite struggling to find a reason why?
  • Considered someone’s moral indignation to be utterly disproportionate?
  • Felt an inner resistance to changing sides in an argument despite seeing good reason for it?
  • Found yourself despairing at a stranger’s ‘bad behaviour’, yet defended similar acts when committed by a friend?

If you’re of an argumentative bent (hell, even if you’re not!), I am daring to presume you would have answered in the affirmative to most of these questions. The purpose of this blog is to shed some moral psychology-based light on the shadowy inner workings of our moral mind. We do we have such contrasting moral opinions? Are these differences simply the result of contrasting cultural/political influences manifesting themselves in microcosm? Do we relinquish our inherent biases in response to a better  moral argument?  Discussing evidence from moral psychology, neuroscience and social psychology, the purpose of this blog is to take you on a whistle stop tour of what these disciplines have to offer on the issue*

Areas of Interest

I want to question the notion that we are ‘moral philosophers’ who weigh up the pros and cons of an issue before drawing a conclusion. I shall offer research to show why our morals are more than simply the result of accumulative life experiences, rational reasoning and cultural influences. Why we are not simply a blank canvas awaiting a morality-based colour palette but, rather, pre-disposed towards a certain morality. That’s not to say that life experiences and cultural context are not influential. Factors, such as: group/societal norms, social class and language (to name a few!) are important indeed. However, I propose this isn’t the entire story on how we develop and express our morality.

Here is a snapshot of some of the subjects we will be exploring in forthcoming entries:

Intuition before reasoning

Do our intuitions precede our rationality when deciding the morality of an issue? A generally consistent body of evidence (Greene et al. 2001, and Rilling et al. 2008) found exposure to moral violations produced instant activity in brain regions associated with emotional processing; the strength of these responses predicated subsequent moral judgement. The contested phenomenon known as Moral Dumbfounding (Haidt and Björklund, 2008) is the persistent belief  in a moral position despite the absence and/or elimination of good reasons for doing so. This isn’t to say we are immune from changing an opinion, however, it may be that the cognitive effort involved is not something we readily seek to do. If intuition does come before reasoning, then does that mean our moral reasoning is driven by something ‘not feeling right’?

Genes and Ideology

Does our genetic make-up have any influence on our moral disposition? Studies of monozygotic twins raised separately found them to be more likely to share political views than dizygotic  twins (Lewis, 2016). Indeed, shared genes and shared political beliefs have been found across a range of culturally diverse countries (Hatemi, et al. 2014). If this is true of ideological beliefs, what might it say about the nature of moral reasoning? Are we all destined to adapt our parent’s view of the world?

 ‘Left and Right’ Neurological Differences.

Do right and left wing individuals have ‘different brains’? Key differences have been found in two areas of the brain: amygdala (fear response and emotional processing) and anterior cingulate cortex (decision-making and cognitive control). In fact, researchers could predict political ideology with 70% accuracy merely by analysing these MRI scan results (Kanai et al. 2011). These neurological differences manifest in response to risk-taking and flexible thinking (Ahn et al. 2014, & Amodio, et al. 2007). Why might this be important? What moral and policy differences may occur if variations exist for risk perception and flexible thinking?

Bodily Influences

Does how we feel within ourselves influence our moral reasoning process? Moral judgements made when feelings of disgust are triggered, be it smell (Schnall et al. 2008) or taste (Eskine, Kacinic, and Prinz, 2011) are harsher. Furthermore, a correlation exists between a higher disgust sensitivity and both social conservatism and prejudicial attitudes (Terrizzi et al. 2013). However, what came first?; the attitudes or the neurological response? If the disgust mechanism does influence attitudes, can we entirely blame someone’s moral outlook if it’s based on an automatic neurological response?

These are just some of the many areas of moral research which aim to uncover objective truths about who we are, how we respond to moral issues, and why we can differ so greatly in that response.

How to use this blog

This blog can be purely read for pleasure (if you’re masochistic like that), though my intention is to offer you a little more. If you’ll forgive my hubris, I intend these writings to offer a basis from which to understand more about your own moral reasoning process. You may well have fixed opinions on particular hot-topic moral-issues (e.g.: abortion, death penalty, etc.). You may well have these fixed opinions because you feel that is the correct moral assessment of the situation (you may well be correct!). However, you may not be aware of all factors that influenced your moral position. It’s important to state that it is beyond the scope of this blog to jump on the existential merry-go-round of meta-ethical concerns on what is an objective moral act. Nor is this a love letter to moral relativism in which I offer you lashings of lukewarm ‘nobody’s wrong, everybody’s right’ stew. I do believe an objectivity exists in morality, it’s why we draw such radically different conclusions on what constitutes a moral act or transgression that shall be our focus.

Right, I think that’s enough contextualising and throat-clearing for now! Next time we meet I shall ask you to grab your best pair of metaphorical running shoes and give me a couple of laps around the perimeters of your moral reasoning process.

* Author Disclaimer: I, like all of us, have pre-dispositions and pre-conceptions that will produce confirmation-bias. Whilst no-one has really found a reliable solution to this, I shall do my damndest not to offer easy answers for any individual/group whom I consider my brethren. Nor will I be offering easy answers for anyone that considers a personal slur the best retort to a differing opinion. If you think anyone who differs in their moral outlook should be ‘crushed as a saboteur’ (© Daily Mail), this isn’t the blog for you.



Ahn, W. Y. et al. (2014) Non-political images evoke neural predictors of political ideology. Curr. Biol. 24: 2693-2699.

Amodio, D. M., Jost, J. T., Master, S. L., and Ye, C. M. (2007) Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nat, Neurosci. 10: 1246-1247.

Eskine, K. J., Kacinic, N. A and Prinz, J. J. (2011) A bad taste in the mouth: Gustatory influences on moral judgement. Psychological Science. 22: 295-299.

Greene, J. D. et al. (2001) An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgement. Science. 293: 2105-2108.

Haidt, J., and Bjorklund, F. (2008) Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology. In Sinnot-Armstong (ed), Moral Psychology, Volume 3, The Neuroscience of Morality, Cambridge. MA: MIT Press, 181-217.

Hatemi, P. K. et al. (2014) Genetic influence on political ideologies: Twin analyses of 15 measures of political ideologies from five democracies and genome-wide findings from three populations. Behav. Genet. 44: 282-294.

Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., and Rees, G. (2011) Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Curr. Biol. 21: 677-680.

Lewis, G. J. (2016) Hans Eyseneck and the first wave of socio-political genetics, Personal. Individ. Differ. 103: 135-139.

Rilling, J. K., King-Casas, B, and Sanfey, A. G. (2008) The neurobiology of social decision-making. Science Direct. 18: 159-165.

Schnall et al. (2008) Disgust as embodied moral judgement, Personality and Social Psychology. 34: 1096-1099.

Terrizzi et al. (2013) The behavioural immune system and social conservatism: a meta-analysis. Human Behaviour. 34 (2): 99-108.