A brief introduction to moral flexibility and the Moral Research Lab

Dan Bartels and I co-direct the Moral Research Lab, or as we call it, MoRL. The lab investigates the mental processes underlying morally-motivated judgment and choice, with a focus on consumer behavior and implications for public policy. What makes MoRL different from many other research labs is that we hold our lab meetings virtually via simultaneous Skype conference call and instant messaging, which allows scholars from different universities to participate.


Yes, this is spelled correctly.


The prevailing view in moral judgment and choice literature is that decision-makers strictly follow moral rules. For example, people block trade-offs between certain values (“don’t allow companies to pay to pollute”) regardless of consequence (“even if pollution credits reduce pollution”). Thus, moral judgment and choice is typically characterized as rigid. However, one of the foundational ideas that we embrace in MoRL is that decision makers can be quite flexible in the way they react to moral dilemmas. Said another way, how moral values influence judgment and choice can depend on the context of the situation and the motives of the consumer.

Moral flexibility – an example.

I credit Dan Bartels and his adviser, Doug Medin, with bringing this issue to light in  convincing fashion in a 2007 paper they published in the journal Psychological Science. Consider this scenario:

As a result of a dam on a river, 20 species of fish are threatened with extinction. By opening the dam for a month each year, you can save these species, but 2 species downstream will become extinct because of the changing water level.

Save me!

Would you open the dam? What is the largest number of species made extinct by the opening at which you would open the dam? Bartels and Medin fournd that people with a strong moral belief for environmental issues such as this one were more likely to say “no” than people who did not have a strong moral belief. That finding is not surprising, as it replicates an effect typically found in the literature: when people see an issue as a moral one they are often refuse to engage in cost-benefit reasoning (even thought many fish species could be saved here).  However, what is interesting about the study is that a slight change in the way the question is asked has a large effect on how people respond to the dilemma. Consider a series of questions that instead assumes a trade-off must be made: Would you open the dam if it would kill 2 species of fish downstream? Would you open the dam if it would kill 6 species of fish downstream? ….Would you open the dam if it would kill 14 species of fish downstream?….

In this line of questioning, people with a strong moral belief appear to more sensitive to the number of fish that could be saved. That is, they appear more likely to be engaging in cost-benefit reasoning when focused on the varying levels of the outcome rather than making a “go” or “no go” decision, which is a reflection of their commitment to the environment.

In short, Bartels and Medin show that moral decision makers demonstrate flexibility in their reasoning due to a simple change in context and questioning . Here is the abstract of the study if you want to read more:

Is morally motivated decision making different from other kinds of decision making? There is evidence that when people have sacred or protected values (PVs), they reject trade-offs for secular values (e.g., ‘‘You can’t put a price on a human life’’) and tend to employ deontological rather than consequentialist decision principles. People motivated by PVs appear to show quantity  insensitivity. That is, in trade-off situations, they are less sensitive to the consequences of their choices than are people without PVs. The current study examined the relation between PVs and quantity insensitivity using two methods of preference assessment: In one design, previous results were replicated; in a second, PVs were related to increased quantity sensitivity. These and other findings call into question important presumed properties of PVs, suggesting that how PVs affect willingness to make tradeoffs depends on where attention is focused, a factor that varies substantially across contexts.

Bartels, Daniel M. and Douglas L. Medin (2007). Are Morally-Motivated Decision Makers Insensitive to the Consequences of their Choices?. Psychological Science, 18, 24-28. (LINK)