In many public situations, we make judgments about people’s commitment to carry through on their stated views. Politicians express commitments to issues ranging from immigration to gay marriage. Corporate leaders give their views on fair labor practices and innovation.
After hearing these views expressed, we have to make judgments about how likely these people are to follow through on their commitments. These expectations influence our support of politicians and companies. They also help us to predict what will happen in the future.
When making statements about difficult issues, there are often two different types of justifications people may give for their beliefs. One type of justification is consequential. It focuses on the outcomes related to a position. For example, a business leader might be opposed to child labor, because it harms children. A second significant type of justification is deontological—it focuses on broad rights and responsibilities. A second business leader might be opposed to child labor because forcing children to work long hours is unjust.
A fascinating paper by Tamar Kreps and Benoit Monin in the November, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined how these views influence people’s perception of the moral commitment of the speaker.
In one study, participants read actual statements from State of the Union addresses given by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Participants did not know which president spoke these words, only that they came from presidential speeches. The statements took positions and then defended them either because of the positive outcome associated with the position (a consequentialist defense) or because of the rights or justice associated with it (a deontological defense). A control group of statements had no justification for the position. After reading each statement, participants rated whether the issue was a moral issue for the speaker.
Participants felt that statements justified by rights and justice were more strongly based in morality than those statements justified by their outcomes. Indeed, statements justified by their outcomes were judged as less strongly based in morality than those with no justification at all.
This result suggests that positions that are based on beneficial outcomes are seen as pragmatic positions rather than moral ones.
Another study in this paper explored this phenomenon further. In this study, participants read statements that were said to have been made by a manager at a company. In addition to rating whether the speaker had a moral basis for the position, they also rated the speaker’s authenticity in holding that position, their commitment to the position, and how generally they support that issue.
As before, when the speaker gave a justification based on rights and justice, that had a stronger moral basis than when the speaker gave a justification based on outcomes. In addition, participants felt that positions based on rights and justice were more authentic, more strongly held, and reflected a more general commitment than those based on outcomes.
Why does this happen?
When people focus on the benefit of the outcome of a position, then it suggests that if someone were able to avoid the bad outcome, then the person’s judgment would be flipped. For example, it seems reasonable that a business leader who opposes child labor because it is bad for children’s long-term education might be convinced to support child labor if accommodations were made that gave the children more education. The consequentialist view suggests that the leader does not have a broad moral argument against the practice, but rather a narrow pragmatic one.
These findings also have implications for people who are trying to express a position. If you want other people to believe that your support for an issue is ironclad, then you should justify it based on broad principles of justice and rights. If you want to signal that you might be willing to compromise on an issue, then you should frame your justification based on outcomes.