Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 22, 2020

You Can Agree to Disagree (or Not)

by Lauren Collier-Spruel and Mike Furr
Finger art of couple. Woman showing thumbs up and man showing thumbs down.

With the spread of COVID-19, government officials have had to make choices about when to act and what to do in their own locales, often with little federal guidance. In deciding what is best for their own citizens, officials have often had to choose between two competing views: saving the economy or saving the lives of the American people.

In the comment section of almost any news article on this topic, you’ll find people debating the pros and cons of each view. People in favor of the economic argument argue that, without working, people will not be able to feed their family, or they speak to job losses and pay cuts that may persist after the virus has passed. President Donald Trump’s recent tweet, “The cure cannot be worse than the problem,” when discussing the economic impacts of stay-at-home orders is a prime example of this view. People in favor of the health argument argue that if people die, the economy won’t matter, so saving lives should be the highest priority. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, famously tweeted, “My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable. We will not put a dollar figure on human life.”

When you try to decide between these viewpoints, do you believe that there is an objectively correct answer that applies to everyone everywhere?  If so, then you are likely to be a moral objectivist. But if you don’t think that there’s an objectively correct answer that applies to all times and places, then you are likely to be a moral relativist.

There are broad assumptions that go along with each of these perspectives. If you find yourself siding with the moral objectivist perspective, other people may assume that you are close-minded and intolerant of people who don’t agree with you. After all, you think that you have the only correct answer. On the other hand, if you are a moral relativist, others might assume that you have no real moral values and that you believe that “anything goes” with regard to what is moral and immoral. But, are such assumptions true? Do moral objectivists tend to be close-minded and intolerant? Are moral relativists morally ungrounded and overly tolerant?

To answer these questions, we studied whether moral relativism and moral tolerance are really the same thing. We developed questionnaires to measure both constructs and compared them to other measures of morality and political orientation. Although our findings showed that tolerance and relativism were related to one another – morally tolerant people tended to score higher in moral relativism -- we found that these constructs were related to different outcomes, showing that they are not the same thing.

Moral relativism was related to anti-authoritarian beliefs (being unwilling to follow authority without question) and to a higher level of utilitarianism (believing that the best choice is the thing that does the most good for the most people). Moral relativism was negatively related to valuing moral principles that are often viewed as more “conservative,” such as the degree to which people value respect for authority, purity, and ingroup loyalty.

In comparison, moral tolerance was related to being more forgiving and to higher moral idealism and positively related to valuing moral dimensions that are often viewed as more “liberal” such as fairness and avoiding harming others.  

Going further, we also wanted to learn how common different combinations of relativist and tolerance beliefs are across a wide sample of people. That is, we wanted to see how common it is for people to be tolerant relativists, tolerant objectivists, intolerant relativists, and intolerant objectivists. As one would expect, it was highly common for people to be tolerant relativists, but tolerant objectivists were surprisingly common as well. In fact, 71% of the people who scored low on relativism scored high on tolerance. This means that believing that there is an objective answer to a moral question does not mean that a person is automatically intolerant of the morality of others.

In the coming months, debates that pit human health against the health of the economy are likely to continue. The moral beliefs of our leaders and neighbors will affect their decisions and choices, impacting the spread of COVID-19 in America and across the globe. As we each decide where we fall in this debate, it may be useful for each of us to consider not only what we believe but also whether we think we are objectively correct and how much we should tolerate people whose opinions differ from ours.  

For Further Reading

Collier‐Spruel L.A., Hawkins, A.A., Jayawickreme, E, Fleeson, W., & Furr, R.M. (2019). Relativism or tolerance? Defining, assessing, connecting, and distinguishing two moral personality features with prominent roles in modern societies. Journal of Personality. 1–19.

Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P.H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 366–385.

Lauren Collier-Spruel is a doctoral candidate in organizational psychology at Michigan State University. 

Mike Furr is a Professor of Psychology and Wright Faculty Fellow at Wake Forest University.


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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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