Skip to main content

Moral Righteousness Can Worsen Conflict

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

illustration, hands pointing at each other

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 can’t be neatly defined. This is partially because morality is broad; our moral values often extend beyond compassion and fairness and include group-focused concerns of loyalty and obedience. Defining morality is also hard because people are “moral acrobats” who can easily convince themselves of the righteousness of their actions. Most people genuinely believe that they are morally above average; this includes people we would normally find less moral, such as prisoners and perpetrators of genocide. 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 moral identity feel more obligated to strangers, while people who fail to perceive moral value in others are more likely to act cruelly. 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.

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 have more uncompromising beliefs and are more likely to ignore or misinterpret facts. As people come to affiliate more strongly with an ethnic or national identity, they tend to develop hatred for people who hold contrasting identities. 

We often consider violent behavior indicative of a person’s broken moral compass. However, most people who commit violence do so out of a sense of moral duty. When people are ideologically committed to values that they consider sacred, they become more and more willing to do anything necessary to preserve those values. Studies show 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 explicitly aim to cause suffering. Additionally, studies show that people often direct retribution toward groups rather than individuals, 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 do not allow for compromise or reconciliation, 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, especially when moral disagreements exist or when there is competition over limited resources. Just as focusing on being charismatic makes a person decidedly less charismatic, 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 we readily engage in moral ways of thinking, 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 Scientific American.

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.
More by Joshua Rottman