Character  &  Context

Making Moral Arguments

Image of two businessmen at podiums debating

By Tamar Kreps

Imagine that you are telling someone else about your views on a policy issue—for example, expressing the view that the death penalty is wrong. What sort of justification should you give for your opinion? You might be tempted to shore up your view using a cost-benefit rationale: “I oppose the death penalty because of the extra financial costs it imposes on our legal and prison systems, and because there is no evidence that it is effective at preventing crime.”

Though this kind of argument lays out relevant information about consequences, it may have a downside. As Benoît Monin and I demonstrated in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, using such consequence-based arguments might actually make your stance seem weaker—and, specifically, less morally based, which in turn could affect how committed you seem to your views and how authentic your statement seems.

An alternative approach to justifying your views on the death penalty would be to cite universal rights and duties: “I oppose the death penalty because we have no right to end other people’s lives, even the lives of criminals, and because we cannot accept the injustice of mistakenly executing innocent people.” We showed that, to most people, arguments of this second type—based on rights, duty, and justice— indicate more moral conviction than arguments based on harm and benefit consequences, and hence greater commitment to the issue and authenticity.

In each of our studies, participants read about one or more speakers—political or business leaders, or just everyday people—expressing their views on a policy or issue. Then, participants answered questions like this one: “John’s attitude about this issue is tied to core moral values and beliefs.”

We varied how the speakers in these stories justified their views: they gave either an argument based on societal costs and benefits, one based on rights and duties, or, in some cases, no justification at all. As we predicted, participants thought that speakers who gave consequence-based reasons moralized the issue less than those who gave rights- and duty-based reasons—and even less than speakers who gave no justification at all. 

For example, in one of our studies, participants read quotations from real presidential State of the Union addresses.  As we predicted, participants thought that consequence-based statements like this one:

Millions of Americans between the ages of 55 and 65 have lost their health insurance. Let these hardworking Americans buy into the Medicare system. It won’t add a dime to the deficit, but the peace of mind it will provide will be priceless.

…were less morally based than rights- and duty-based statements like this one:

There is dignity in all work, and there must be dignity for all workers. We will reward the work of millions of working poor Americans by realizing the principle that if you work 40 hours a week and you’ve got a child in the house, you will no longer be in poverty.

Even quotations with no justification were rated slightly, but reliably, higher than consequence-based ones. In other words, speakers who shored up their statements with consequence-based justifications were actually conveying less of a moral stance!

Why does it matter whether people are seen as taking a moral stance? One reason is that, when audiences judge a speaker’s degree of moral conviction, they also make further inferences about the speaker. Our paper also demonstrated that speakers who appear to moralize also appear more committed to their views, and more authentic in their statements.

Speakers who take a moral stance, we speculated, seem to be revealing something about the core values of their character. Thus, they seem both more committed—because they will presumably retain their core values over time, regardless of any temporary or contingent factors—and more authentic—because they are revealing more about themselves.

Indeed, our studies supported these predictions. In addition to the questions about speakers’ moral conviction, we also asked participants how much the people in the stories seemed committed to their views, and how authentic they were. In parallel with their perceptions of moral conviction, participants thought that speakers who gave consequence-based arguments were less committed and less authentic than those who gave rights- and duty-based arguments.

These results offer practical advice for leaders and other speakers: If you want to convey a sense of moral conviction, justify your statements based on rights and duty, and avoid citing cost-benefit considerations in an attempt to strengthen your view. Conversely, if you want to downplay the moral basis of your argument, you can still take a strong stance, as long as you emphasize that your view is based on harm and helping consequences.

Finally, realize that a moral stance is a commitment. If you need to maintain flexibility to change your mind in the future, avoid taking a moral stance just to play to your audience’s values, because you will be expected to stick with your opinion. However, if an issue really is moral for you, your audience will appreciate the authentic revelation involved in a moral stance.


Kreps, T.A., & Monin, B. (2014). Core values vs. common sense: consequentialist explanations appear less rooted in morality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1529-1542.


Tamar Kreps is a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her research explores moral motivation and moral framings: how leaders can convey moral conviction, and how moral motivation affects their followers’ social cognition and behavior.

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