Can Your Moral Views Really Evolve, Like President Obama Says?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 10 2012 6:00 PM

Can Someone's Morals Really “Evolve”?

Assessing Obama's change of heart on gay marriage.

.S. President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC's Good Morning America.
Robin Roberts of ABC's "Good Morning America" interviews President Obama on Wednesday.

Photo by Pete Souza/White House Photograph via Getty Images.

President Obama endorsed gay marriage in an interview Wednesday. The president has described his views on gay marriage over the past few years as “evolving,” but many believe he was just waiting for public opinion to catch up with him. Can someone's moral principles really evolve?

Yes. While some of the growing national acceptance of gay marriage is the result of turnover—as  older, more socially conservative people die off—there has been a significant amount of mind-changing among members of the American public. Many sociologists believe that morality derives from intuition rather than reason, and our rational explanations for moral positions are simply post hoc justifications. One of the primary movers of our intuitive sense of morality, the argument goes, is called the cohort effect. According to this theory, people shift their views so they match those of their peers. That doesn't explain why those peers changed their views—at some point, someone has to have changed opinions on his or her own—but the cohort effect does serve to accelerate a broad moral shift across society.

On an individual level, moral judgments are also driven by visceral feelings of repugnance. Social conservatives, for example, tend to find the thought of homosexual activity—or even the mere sight of a same-sex couple holding hands—somewhat disgusting. While it’s difficult to change one’s general proclivity for disgust, there is ample evidence that repeated exposure to a particular disgusting image can lessen its impact. Medical students, for example, consider cadavers far less disgusting by the end of medical school, even though they find the smell of urine or the idea of accidentally drinking a stranger’s soda as disgusting as ever. The same scenario can also play out in societal attitudes toward homosexuality. Increased exposure may have lessened the negative responses to it, and, as the sense of revulsion fades, so does opposition to gay marriage. In this sense, evolution is a reasonable metaphor for the process by which opponents of gay marriage have adapted to a changing environment.

Advertisement

Vice President Biden took some stick for his statement on Sunday’s Meet the Press that “Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public [about homosexuality] than almost anything anybody's ever done so far.” There is research, however, to suggest the VP is right about the influence of television. Economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster found that access to cable television significantly changed the social views of Indian villagers. Those who could watch the newest shows, with their cosmopolitan mores, became more opposed to domestic violence, less likely to prefer sons over daughters, and more likely to enroll their children (especially girls) in school. Cable-watchers also had fewer children, on average.

Despite this research on the roles of disgust and passive television watching, it’s important to keep in mind that the application of reason does play into the development of individual morality. People sometimes change their mind as a result of simple rational persuasion, even if it’s difficult for sociologists to study.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Paul Bloom of Yale University and author of the forthcoming book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Jonathan Haidt of the NYU-Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and David Pizarro of Cornell University.

Video Explainer: Why Do Parrots Parrot, and Do They Know What They're Saying?

This video was produced from an original Explainer by Will Oremus.

Want more questions answered? You can now watch video Explainers at Slate's News Channel on YouTube.


Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.