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Moral Righteousness Can Worsen Conflict

Research on morality shows that it can counterintuitively impede peace and progress

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I have spent my career studying moral decision-making. Through my own research and that of my colleagues, I have become acutely aware of how moral motivations and justifications warp our thinking in dangerous ways. Morality can sustain misunderstandings and inflame brutality, particularly when people hold discordant values.

A tricky term, morality . This is partially because morality is broad; our moral values often extend beyond compassion and fairness and. Defining morality is also hard because people are “” who can easily convince themselves of the righteousness of their actions. Most people genuinely believe that they are ; this includes people we would normally find less moral, such as and . In lieu of a clear definition, I use the word “moral” to mean the mental processes that are engaged when people think about the world in terms of good and evil.

Recognizing morality as a cause and justification for conflict is challenging, because we tend to think of moral motivations as wellsprings of harmony and social progress. People with a strong sense of, while people who. In appealing to and upholding moral values, people have accomplished some of society’s greatest achievements, such as Indian independence and the end of South African apartheid. But other people claim morality to justify injustices, in cases such as “honor killings” and the criminalization of homosexuality.


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Research shows that moral mindsets are frequent obstacles to achieving peace and progress. In the case of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, the two sides are weaponizing morality to frame their attacks as a necessary means of eliminating evil from the region.

Moral motivations can cause a wide range of unsavory consequences. People who are morally convicted and are more likely . As people come to affiliate more strongly with an ethnic or national identity, for people who hold contrasting identities. 

We often consider violent behavior indicative of a person’s broken moral compass. However, . When people are ideologically committed to values that they consider sacred, they become to preserve those values. that Israelis and Palestinians who feel a sacred attachment to their homeland express more support for intergroup violence and are less likely to pursue compromises.

People are sometimes inclined to use their moral convictions to seek revenge on perpetrators of what they believe are moral transgressions. When we engage in vengeance, we rarely try to deter future crimes or to reform violent actors, but instead. Additionally, studies show that, such that people seeking revenge consider all Israelis or all Palestinians to be collectively blameworthy for the most extreme actions of a small number of people.

Commitments to moral principles not only spark retribution, but also serve as the fuel that perpetuates vicious cycles of vengeance. Because moral ways of thinking , it becomes nearly impossible for morally motivated leaders to find clear paths to end moral conflicts. 

In the end, our commitments to moral values can get in the way of basic humanitarian goals, like protecting civilians’ lives and promoting reconciliation, . Just as , pursuing rigid moral ideals is likely to backfire. Moral motivations frequently exacerbate––rather than relieve––suffering, injustice and hatred.

Thinking pragmatically rather than morally allows people to pursue humanitarian aims in clearheaded ways. Tempering a moral mindset and adopting a pragmatic one will help us to focus on the future rather than the past, and on maximizing benefits rather than defending sacrosanct values.

Morality may have its place in promoting certain forms of social progress. But on the whole, moral conviction is much more likely to be a detriment, especially in cases of intergroup conflict. Pragmatism may be the only viable solution for achieving peace. Because , achieving this will take a tremendous effort and would set a new precedent for overcoming conflict.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of 鶹ýAV.

Joshua Rottman is an associate professor at Franklin & Marshall College and a research associate at the University of Oxford's Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. His work has been featured in outlets such as the Atlantic, Psychology Today and National Geographic.
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