Tag Archives: Morals

Why Poor People Have Harsher Moral Judgments

Morals is certainly one of my interests, as is evidenced by my series on Michael Sandel’s bookWhat Money Can[‘t] Buy. And so, when I came across a journal article called, “A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments,” I was intrigued, if not a bit saddened.

The researchers attempted to test the idea of whether a lack of material resources would cause people to have harsher moral judgments. The reason they posited this was because a lack of material resources is correlated with a lower ability to cope with other people’s harsh behaviour. Not only were they able to prove that a relationship exists between a lack of material resources and harsher moral judgments, but they were also able to prove this true in state dependent instances. Meaning, yes, a lack of material resources corresponded to making harsher judgments, but even when participants perceived themselves as having a lack of material resources, they offered harsher moral judgments.

The implications of this research seem rather important.

While it’s not specifically addressed in the study, I wonder what the plotted relationship between harsher moral judgments and income would look like. That is, I wonder at what point does income no longer correlate with harsher moral judgments. In particular, I wonder about the whole idea that there are 24 times as many millionaires in the US Congress than there are in the US population. As a result, I’d expect that moral judgments would be less harsh (than if there were fewer millionaires), but we know that doesn’t quite make sense because there are more things than just income that affect moral judgments.

More recently, however, I wonder about the World Economic Forum and the data released that less than 100 people have as much wealth as over 50% of the world’s population. By the information gleaned from the study, we’d expect that over half of the world’s population would have harsh moral judgments.

On a smaller scale, I’d wonder about the psychological health of people who have harsher moral judgments. It may seem only tangentially related, but negative thinking has been shown to have negative effects on one’s health. As  result, I’d expect that these harsher moral judgments might have an effect on one’s health.

ResearchBlogging.orgM. Pitesa, & S. Thau (2014). A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797613514092

Markets and Morality: Why We Shouldn’t Trust Markets with Our Civic Life

About a month ago, I finished up a series about Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I really enjoyed reading through the chapters and chewing on the material. As you may recall, I also highly recommended watching Prof. Sandel’s course: Justice. A few day ago, I noticed that one of Sandel’s more recent TEDTalks was published online. After watching it, I thought I’d pass it along to you as a great way to get a quick understanding of some of the things that Sandel talks about in his book. The talk was filmed this past summer.

As I think about markets and morals, I can’t help but seem to agree with much of what Sandel is saying. I’m also aware that not everyone shares his opinion about markets and morality. Do you agree? Do you think that allowing markets to decide everything is crowding out morals? I’d be really interested to hear your opinions.

I do as best I can to take in opinions and information that is contrary to my opinions, but it can be difficult. Especially in the internet environment, it’s quite easy to get caught up in the echo chamber of your own thoughts and beliefs. That’s part of the reason that I try to write posts that provide a new perspective on issues.

On this matter in particular, I’d like to your opinions on Prof. Sandel’s idea of markets and morality. In fact, I’m hoping that some of you disagree with Prof. Sandel and you think that markets are truly the answer to everything. I’m hoping that you think that markets should operate in every part of our lives. I’m hoping that you think what Prof. Sandel is saying is wrong. Most of all, I’m hoping that you can offer a cogent response that’s at least half as well-sourced as Prof. Sandel’s book.

The Most Effective Form of Discipline: Punishment or Empathy?

Have you ever broken the rules? If you’re answering honestly, no doubt, your answer should almost certainly be yes. If you drive, you’ve probably rolled a stop sign once or twice in your life. Or, you’ve probably at least barely gone over the speed limit, even if you were trying to maintain a speed below the limit. There’s always jaywalking. That is, you’ve probably crossed the street when you weren’t in the crosswalk when the walk sign was on the cross. What about taking office supplies from work? You may feel justified in doing so, but I bet if you read your contract or the rules/regulations of your organization, it’s not something that’s endorsed. There are probably plenty of other examples where you’ve broken a rule (accidentally or intentionally!), but there may only be a few (one?) where you’ve had an experience that changed your life.

I don’t necessarily mean that it changed your life in some profound way (although it may have). I’m speaking more towards those experiences that you’ll always remember. The lesson(s) you learned from the experience(s) was/were just what you needed at the time. Do you have one of those experiences? Now that you’re thinking of that experience, I wonder: did you receive a punishment for breaking the rules or did you get off with a warning?

I’d hazard a guess that if I polled those of you reading this article, the majority of you would say that the experience where you were left off with a warning was the one that stuck with you. And why is this? Empathy. Compassion. Kindness.

These are human expressions that tend to touch us in ways that the antithesis of these expressions don’t. It’s a tired sentiment, but the news is filled with negativity. As a result, experiences that show us the opposite of this negativity tend to shock us. This surprise tends to stick with us and the experience can teach us something we weren’t expecting.

I’d like to share an example that I think accentuates my point. I came across an answer on Quora to a question asking about people’s best experiences with police. This particular answerer, Andrew Bosworth, was 16 years old and on his way home from Sacramento to the Bay Area. He was really tired and knew he was driving somewhat erratically. He’d glance down at the odometer and he’d be just as likely to be going 20 mph over the speed limit as he would be going 20 mph under the speed limit. Eventually, he was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol:

Instead of giving me a ticket, he pointed down the offramp to a place I could get some coffee and rest. He asked if I had enough money to get some coffee and offered to give me some if I didn’t. He said if I really couldn’t get back to an alert state that I should call a friend or my parents and get a ride because what I was doing wasn’t safe for myself or other drivers.

Honestly, I can’t imagine that getting a ticket would have had nearly as big an impact on my driving as the short, compassionate conversation that officer had with me that night.

While there are certainly times where some form of punishment may be more appropriate, I’d like to believe that in many cases, compassion and empathy can be just as, if not more, effective.


Twenty Online Talks That Will Change Your Life, Part 2

Yesterday, I began going through one of The Guardian’s articles about 20 online talks that could change your life. We got through the first 10 talks yesterday. In this post, we’ll look at the last 10 talks.

11. Shaking Hands With Death – Terry Pratchett

12. The Voices in My Head – Eleanor Longden

If you have no experience with schizophrenia, Longden’s talk will certainly change that. It’s important to note, not everyone comes as ‘far’ as she did. Nonetheless, I hope her story fosters empathy within you.

13. Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101 – Albert Bartlett

I don’t remember when I first saw this lecture from Bartlett, but I know that it was probably one of the first lectures I watched on the internet (maybe 15 years ago?). If you’re captivated by headlines like “Crime Doubles in a Decade,” or you’re confused about inflation then you’ll learn a lot in the first half of the video. As someone who majored (second major) in sociology, I can certainly empathize with the idea of a Malthusian catastrophe. I suppose I’m putting stock in the fact that something will change before it gets to that. You may be tired of hearing that people of time X couldn’t have predicted what life would be like in time Y, but I’d say that this is a big factor in why I think we’re not hurtling toward the future that Bartlett explains. Of course, I could be wrong, but I really think that something will change before it comes to this.

14. The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class – Elizabeth Warren

15. The Secret Powers of Time – Philip Zimbardo

If you’ve ever taken PSYC 100, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Zimbardo. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, his famous experiment will: the Stanford Prison Experiment. I remember watching the RSA Animate version of this talk a couple of years ago. Zimbardo shines a light where you might not have been looking: your relationship to time.

16. The secret to desire in a long-term relationship – Esther Perel

17. Printing a human kidney – Anthony Atala

In 2011 when this talk was given, the idea of 3D printing was brand new. To some, it may still be. I remember talking about it last year in the context of rapid technological change. If you’re still fuzzy on 3D printing, this is an enlightening place to start.

18. Do schools kill creativity? – Ken Robinson

If you’ve ever watched a TEDTalk, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of this one from Ken Robinson. As of this time last year, it was the most watched TEDTalk – ever – with almost 15,000,000 views. If you haven’t seen this one, spend the next 20 minutes doing just that.

19. Sugar: The Bitter Truth – Robert Lustig

20. Moral behavior in animals – Frans de Waal


If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

Chapter 5 – The Commercialization of Everything: What Money Can[’t] Buy, Part 5

About a week ago, I got back to the series I was doing about the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In last week’s post, the fourth chapter, we looked at corporate-owned life insurance and placebos. In today’s post, the fifth and final chapter, we’ll look at the commercialization of everything.

I wasn’t expecting to come across sports in this book, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first few pages were about stadiums being renamed by corporate sponsors. I didn’t realize that this was a fairly new thing. In 1988 only three sports stadiums had been renamed by corporate sponsors. Sixteen years later, in 2004, there were sixty-six. The amount of money went up significantly, too. In 1988, the deals totaled $25 million, while in 2004, the amount came to a whopping $3.6 billion! In 2010, over 100 stadiums in the United States were named for corporate sponsors. So, in the span of less than 25 years, we went from 3 corporate-sponsored stadiums to more than 100.

Having grown up in Toronto, I still find myself referring to Rogers Centre as Skydome. 

This chapter also discussed the idea of athletes selling their autograph. In the old days, this wasn’t even something to be considered. Many athletes willingly signed cards and sports equipment (i.e. baseball, hockey pucks, etc.) for fans. Near the same time that stadiums were being renamed, some athletes were beginning to sell their autographs rather than giving them away. This may seem greedy at first, but consider that athletes from before the 80s weren’t necessarily making lucrative contracts. In fact, athletes back then were not only often paid much worse than athletes today, but they were more on par with what you’d be paid to be an employee at a “normal job.”


The chapter then moves into a discussion of — in my words — the commercialization of everything.We’re now seeing advertisements and commercials in places we wouldn’t have ever imagined. For instance, when you pump gas, there’s a TV above the pump feeding you advertisements. Or how about when you’re driving down the highway. It’s kind of hard to ignore some of those catchy billboards, isn’t it? Then, there’s the always in vogue idea of product placement. Some of the places you find product placement was a bit surprising. I didn’t know that police stations were in talks to have cars with advertisements on them nor did I realize that in some state parks around the US are there advertisements for things like North Face.

I was surprised to read about some of the commercialization in the US, especially when I know that in some states, there’s a ban on billboards (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont). Moving outside of the US, I know that some countries (or maybe the citizens of those countries) have a real aversion to commercials seeping into unwanted places. For instance, São Paulo in Brazil hasn’t allowed public advertising since 2006. I also know that TV commercials in Germany aren’t nearly as frequent as they are in the US. On most German TV stations, there can’t be more than 20 minutes of commercials (before 8pm).


The last part of the chapter ends the book almost exactly the way I would have [Emphasis added]:

Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong — and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.

Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.

In addition to debating the meaning of this good or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live…

At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide by our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

So, if you prefer not to get too deep into a discussion of inequality that focuses on wealth, then I’d encourage you to think about the ideas that Prof. Sandel is talking about here at the end of the book. He’s just spent the last 200 pages explaining how markets (in some places), to some people, are corroding the value of these goods. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall down on, maybe it’s time we start talking about this. Maybe it’s time to have a dialogue in the public square of more moral and spiritual substance. Of course, this might not be as easy as it sounds, as he says, the last three decades have been void of this.


If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.


How Do You Know When You’re “Right” to be in the Minority?

For about a month, I’ve had a note on my list of things to write about as “Majority vs. Minority: Hard to Oppose the Majority.” I don’t remember which event sparked this thought, but it was rekindled a few days ago with the anniversary of the March on Washington. I’ve read different takes on what it was like during the Civil Rights movement, but I can never *truly* know because I wasn’t there. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to oppose such an oppressive majority opinion at the time. This isn’t the only time in history that the majority opinion has been — eventually — overturned, or at least, subdued. You can point to most revolutions throughout history as definite examples.

My question: how do you know when you’re on the right side?

I suppose there can’t be a universal fact-based answer to knowing you’re on the right side because every situation will be different. More than that, every person will have to decide for themselves what’s the “right” side and the “wrong” side. But maybe it’s too narrowing to think in terms of right and wrong. It certainly makes life easier when things are boxed into right and wrong, but that’s not always the case. As we know from theories of moral development, what was once immoral at one stage, becomes justifiably moral at another.

The more I think about this issue, the more I think there’s probably a good book in here. There’s a lot to explore from sociological, anthropological, and psychological perspectives. It’s certainly not easy to oppose the majority. There’s a strong urge to conform.

I think if I had to provide a thesis, it might be something to the effect of: the only person who can decide whether to support the majority opinion or the minority opinion is you. Sure, taking in opinions/facts from others is important in making your decision, but ultimately, you’ve got to decide for yourself whether this is something you want to support (or oppose). We’ve each got our own moral compass (or conscience). This little voice inside is how you can know and if you choose to go against that voice, it is only you who will have to deal with it.

Chapter 2 – Fines vs. Fees: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I chewed on the material from chapter 1 of Professor Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. The first chapter was all about jumping the line (or budding, as I remember it from my elementary school days). In Chapter 2, the theme was incentives.

I had finished reading chapter 2 a little while ago, but I’d been busy recounting the bits from that paper over the last several days, so I’d sidelined a post about chapter 2. Now that I’ve finished the paper (A Collection of Scriptures for Guidance), I thought I’d chew on the material from chapter 2.

As I said, the title of chapter 2 was incentives. There were a few things that I wanted to highlight (though, I thought the whole chapter was fascinating). In particular what stood out to me were three things: incentives (and the perverting of incentives), fines vs. fees, and paying kids to read. Let’s start with the last one, which will link to the first one.

Nowadays, some parents pay their kids to read. In fact, some schools encourage the idea of rewarding children for reading. At first, this seems like a great use of the free market, right? Incentivizing the reading of books to get kids to read more books. Except, what if part of the pleasure of reading is the pure desire to read? By paying kids to read, it robs them of that intrinsic motivation. In fact, by paying kids to read, it could de-incentivize them from reading when there is no reward involved (perverting the incentives).

In thinking about this example, it made me contemplate just how hard it can be for lawmakers (i.e. Congresspeople, Members of Parliament, etc.) to write legislation that will properly incentivize the citizens to act in a way that is best for themselves (and the town/city/county/country, etc.). Paying kids to read seems like an easy way to get kids to read, but when one plays out the incentive and considers the unintended consequences, one can see how this perverts the intent of getting kids to read.

The next piece I wanted to talk about was fines vs. fees. This part was really interesting to contemplate. From the book:

What is the difference between a fine and a fee? It’s worth pondering the distinction. Fines register moral disapproval, whereas fees are simply prices that imply no moral judgment. When we impose a fine for littering, we’re saying that littering is wrong… It reflects a bad attitude that we as society want to discourage. Suppose the fine is $100 [for littering] and a wealthy hiker decides it’s worth the convenience of not having to carry his empties out of the park. He treats the fine as a fee and tosses his beer cans into the Grand Canyon. Even though he pays up, we consider that he’s done something wrong. By treating the Grand Canyon as a dumpster, he has failed to appreciate it in an appropriate way.

Sandel goes on to talk about how this fines vs. fees attitude can also be applied to disabled parking spaces, speeding, the subway/metro, renting videos, and many others. I found this discussion especially interesting because of the moral-ness to it. When one is creating fines, one is (whether one means to or not) using morals. We don’t think it’s morally right to litter and that’s why there’s a fine for littering. Paying to park your car in a garage is a fee.

There’s one more passage that I think was really important to remember from this chapter:

But why does this mean that moral philosophy must enter the picture? For the following reason:

Where markets erode nonmarket norms, the economist (or someone) has to decide whether this represents a loss worth caring about… The answer will vary from case to case. But the question carries us beyond predicting whether a financial incentive will work. It requires that we make a moral assessment: What is the moral importance of the attitudes and norms that money may erode or crowd out?

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series: