“When you have a strong moral conviction about something, it really is pretty much akin to your belief that 2+2 = 4,” says Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Can you imagine somebody being able to persuade you off of that conclusion?”
This can happen with any issue—“there are not, by definition, moral issues,” Skitka says. The debate about abortion, for example, is very divisive and may be moralized for many people, but not everyone has a strong moral conviction about abortion. But there are issues that tend to be more moralized, on average, than others, and some things only become moralized over time.
Smoking is a good example of this. Before the 1964 surgeon general’s report made the health hazards un-ignorable, whether someone smoked cigarettes or not wasn’t seen as much of a moral quandary. In the decades that followed the revelation that smoking can kill you, research shows that attitudes toward it shifted. People became more disgusted, liked smoking less, and saw smoking more and more as an immoral behavior.
For many issues, moral divides are also political divides. In the U.S., liberals and conservatives are equally morally convicted about most issues Skitka and her colleagues have looked at, including same-sex marriage, welfare, capital punishment, surveillance, social security, and taxes. (That’s not to say they feel the same way, just that they feel the same amount of moral conviction about these issues, on average.) There are a few issues that liberals feel more moral conviction about—climate change, the environment, health care, education, income inequality, and gender inequality—and a few that conservatives feel more moral conviction about—immigration, gun control, abortion, states’ rights, physician-assisted suicide, the federal deficit, and the federal budget.
How morally convicted someone feels about an issue (or a political candidate) predicts some political attitudes and behaviors. People who are more morally convicted about a cause are more likely to participate in activism for that cause. They are more likely to vote when there is a candidate they feel a strong moral tie to, or when an issue they’re morally convicted about is at stake.
What’s more, when an issue is moralized for someone, when they believe there is a right and a wrong outcome, they care more about getting the “right” outcome than how it is achieved. Authorities such as the Supreme Court are seen as less legitimate if they are out of step with someone’s moral ideology. If the system comes to the morally wrong answer, it’s taken as a sign that the system is broken.
In one study by Skitka and her colleagues, participants were put into small groups to discuss potential solutions to an assigned conflict—the death penalty, whether abortion should be legal, or whether universities should have mandatory testing as a graduation requirement. The first two topics were moral hot-buttons, while testing was a non-moral control. Some of the groups were constructed so that everyone had the same position on the topic, and some had a mix of positions. The groups who discussed a moral issue, who didn’t already agree, were the least cooperative and reported feeling the least goodwill toward each other. And those who discussed a moral issue, whether they were on the same side or not, were less likely to come to a consensus on a solution.