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Which Beliefs Contribute to Virtuous Behavior?

Which beliefs contribute to virtuous behavior? In other words, which beliefs can we form to make it more likely that we act virtuously in the future – more honestly, more compassionately, more courageously, more humbly, and the like? In this brief essay, I will propose four different answers, but I want to stress that these are not the only ones that could be given. I have included them only because these answers repeatedly show up in my own reading of research in psychology and philosophy.

First we should note that our question is asking specifically about beliefs. Beliefs are not the only mental states worth mentioning – desires and emotions are also incredibly important to virtuous behavior (but will have to wait for another essay). Just having a belief – say that I ought to stop gossiping or that it would be good for me to donate to charity – can leave me indifferent to actually behaving in that way if I do not also care about these things. So to become virtuous people we need to form appropriate beliefs as well as cultivate the right desires and emotions, as both of these components play a central role.

First Answer – Beliefs about People’s Virtue. Having good role models in our lives who we admire because of their moral behavior or character can make a huge difference. These role models can lead us to form beliefs such as:

Why would these beliefs make such a difference? Because of their connection to powerful emotional responses. For instance, the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done research on what he calls the emotion of “elevation.” This is what we feel when we see another person do something particularly virtuous or morally admirable. Just think back to a time when you were feeling uplifted and inspired by someone’s bravery or loyalty or charity – perhaps your heart was moved, inspiring you to similar acts in your own life.

Research by Haidt and others has found a strong relationship between feelings of elevation and increased virtuous behavior. For instance, one study found that elevation neutralized anti-black racism and increased helping, while another found that, when compared to controls, elevation led to participants doubling the amount of time they spent on a helpful task.

Second Answer – Beliefs about Your Own Virtue. The first set of beliefs has to do with other people’s character. But we also have beliefs about ourselves, such as:

The first two beliefs are about a person’s own virtuous character, and labeling ourselves in these ways can have an effect on our virtuous behavior because we want to live up to how we believe ourselves to be as moral people (at least for the labels we think are positive). On the other hand, note that the third and fourth beliefs instead have to do with what other people think about our characters. Such beliefs can also lead to virtuous behavior since we think that those people expect us to live up to the particular label in the future, and we naturally want to continue to be regarded highly by them.

Lots of research over the years has found that both kinds of beliefs about our own character can have a significant effect on behavior. To take just one example, the psychologist Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon ran a study where participants were asked to make a donation to the Heart Association. For those who did donate, half were told that they were “generous,” while the other half received no such label. A week later, everyone was again asked to donate, this time to a local fund-raising campaign for multiple sclerosis. Here are the results:

Average Amount of Donation to MS  Research
“Generous” Label          $0.70
No Label                            $0.41

Even though the donation amounts might not have been large, there was a significant difference between them. Whether this was because the “generous” donors took the label to heart, or only were concerned with what others might think of them, remains to be seen.

Third Answer – Moral Standards. Surely if any beliefs enhance virtuous behavior, our beliefs about what is right and wrong would, such as:

But it turns out that many times a person’s moral standards do not have a significant bearing on how she acts in a particular situation, as we probably already know from our own experience.

Nevertheless, fascinating research is being done to discover ways of increasing the psychological impact of our moral standards. For instance, most of us presumably believe that cheating is wrong (at least in most cases), and yet many studies have found that we often cheat anyway when we think that we will not get caught. To find ways of bolstering honest behavior, marketing professor Nina Mazar of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management divided participants into two groups and had everyone take a test for which they would be paid for each correct answer. Here were the results:

First Group – No Opportunity to Cheat          3.1 correct answers
Second Group – Opportunity to Cheat           4.2 correct answers

It is hard to believe that the participants in the second group were that much better at taking the test; instead it looks as if at least some of them took advantage of the opportunity to cheat.

But Mazar also had a third group of participants first recall as many of the Ten Commandments as they could, before they took the same test with the opportunity to cheat. Now she found:

Recall Ten Commandments + Opportunity to Cheat         2.8 correct answers

Note that cheating in the third group was on average even lower than in the first group.

These results suggest that moral standards can increase virtuous behavior, provided they are salient in the person’s mind at the moment. Other factors, which we can discuss in the comments, are also being discovered that can similarly increase the power of our moral standards in leading to corresponding behavior.

Fourth Answer – Certain Religious Beliefs. Positive religious beliefs could be categorized under the previous heading of moral standards, but they are worth highlighting separately given the number of studies done in recent years which focus specifically on these beliefs. Examples of positive religious beliefs include:

Naturally the category of religious beliefs is very broad, and different beliefs can trigger rather different desires and emotions, some of which are not very virtuous. But there is now a large body of research which has found a strong correlation between various measures of religiosity and everything from increased completion of homework, health care utilization, donations to charity, and volunteer work, to reduced criminal behavior, suspensions from school, and smoking. To take just one example, the 2002 National Study of Youth and Religion looked at the self-reported behavior of 2,478 twelfth-grade students and found the following

Weekly Religious Attendance   No Religious Affiliation

Sold Drugs in Past 12 Months                                     6.7                                     18.4
Used Hard Drugs in Past 12 Months                        19.8                                    37.1
Been in Trouble with Police in Past 12 Months    6.4                                     13.7
Never Skipped School in Past Year                          47.8                                    31.0
Never Volunteered in Community                           13.1                                    37.8


Religious attendance does not necessarily imply religious belief, but similar patterns also arose when the measure was self-reported importance of religion.

Admittedly, much of the research on religion and positive outcomes takes the form of correlation studies, and we all know that correlation does not imply causation, in this case by the religious beliefs. Clearly more work needs to be done.

So which beliefs do increase the likelihood of virtuous behavior? The emerging answer seems to be that many different beliefs can, including others not mentioned here such as empathetic beliefs. In some cases the primary role of the beliefs is to trigger particular feelings and emotions, as in the case of role models. In other cases the primary role of the beliefs is to structure a person’s worldview or outlook on life, such as with the moral and religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is important to stress that the four answers offered above are not unrelated to each other – a positive role model, for instance, can influence what moral and religious beliefs we might have, and vice versa.

But I want to end with a question that psychology cannot answer, namely, “Which of the beliefs mentioned in this essay should be promoted as a way of increasing virtuous behavior?” Certainly, I would argue, beliefs involving good role models and correct moral standards deserve to be at the top of the list – it is hard to see what would be objectionable about having a role model who is a virtuous person, or about developing an accurate understanding of the principles of morality.

But what about beliefs in our own virtuousness, e.g., that we are honest or compassionate people? Should they also be encouraged? The problem is that such beliefs usually are false, since most of us are not virtuous people and do not have the virtues like honesty. Or at least that is what the psychological evidence suggests to me, and I would be happy to talk about this more in the comments. The question for now is this – is it okay to try to increase virtuous behavior by promoting beliefs which may seriously misrepresent who we are? Similarly for the positive religious beliefs, should an atheist or agnostic encourage other people to form those beliefs, if he also thinks that they are mistaken?

It is initially tempting to answer these questions with a “no.” But a counter-argument is that sometimes we value benefits to society over the truth. For instance, placebos are sometimes used in the medical community, even though they promote false beliefs and involve deception.

Personally I am not persuaded by this counter-argument. It would be too manipulative and lead to too many problematic results if, for instance, many people were encouraged to believe that they are compassionate when we know that they really are not. We can continue this discussion in the comments. For now my hope is that, as we continue to discover which beliefs contribute to virtuous behavior, we will also keep in mind the further question of how that behavior can be promoted in the most appropriate and admirable ways.

Discussion Summary

I am very grateful to the many commentators who posted about my article on the Big Question Online site during the week of June 18. The comments really challenged me to think deeper about these issues. I wanted to pick up on a few of the central themes that were raised, and I apologize that there is not more space to mention every topic.

Central Themes

In my article I offered four answers to the question of which beliefs contribute to virtuous behavior: beliefs in positive role models, beliefs in your own virtue (or that others believe you are virtuous), certain moral beliefs, and certain religious beliefs. Let me mention three themes that were generated in the discussion.

One theme had to do with my third proposal about “certain” moral beliefs, which I tied to correct moral standards. That naturally led to questions about what makes a moral standard “correct.” I noted that I am assuming an objective framework for thinking about moral standards, and that in contemporary Western ethics there are two main approaches to conceiving of an objective morality. One is to say that the objective morality just exists as an objective feature of the universe, and was not created by anyone. An analogy would be to the laws of physics, which can be said to just exist as objective truths as well. The other leading option is to say that the objective morality is based on a divine being, in particular the God of the three main theistic religions. In other words God has, either through his commands or his will or in some other way, set into place a moral framework for human beings to live by. My response led to follow-up comments about what practical difference these two options end up having in the end.

Another theme which emerged is the importance of belief in your own agency, and relatedly in free will and moral responsibility. I agreed that these beliefs are important, and I would have addressed them if there had been more space. As I noted in a comment, I tend to think of all these beliefs as background conditions for forming the virtues. They can contribute in positive ways to enabling a person to become more virtuous, but by themselves they do not make a direct contribution to virtue, although their absence can contribute to morally problematic behavior. In other words, there are many people for whom it is true that they believe that they are agents, believe in free will, believe in changeable, controllable traits, believe that they are able to help others in various ways, and believe that they are self-controlled – and yet at the same time they have one or more vices, or at least do not have the moral virtues like honesty or compassion.

Finally, there was active debate and disagreement on the ethics of my second strategy of encouraging belief in our own virtuousness. As I claimed in the article, while there is psychological evidence that such beliefs can make us behave more virtuously (at least in the short run), on ethical grounds there are serious questions about whether this should count as a morally acceptable strategy if it involves knowingly promoting in others false beliefs about themselves (since most people are not in fact virtuous). In reply, some comments noted how believing that you are virtuous can be helpful, and one in particular urged this approach to moral education for children. My final thought was that, while I certainly agree that it is great to nurture the seed of good character, is the right way to do this by telling children that they are already virtuous, i.e., already honest, already compassionate, etc., if it involves deceiving them in a certain way in order to make the ends justify the means? Rather, my alternative approach would be to say that it is important to become virtuous, to become honest, to become compassionate, etc. So I agree that encouraging compassion in a person can initiate a process whereby that character trait materializes; I am just worried about initiating that process bytelling the child that he is already compassionate.

Two New “Big” Questions

In light of the discussion online, here are two natural questions to pursue next:

1. Does thinking of yourself as a free and responsible moral agent contribute to virtuous behavior?

2. Having identified some of the strategies which could actually promote virtuous behavior, is it important to consider which ones should be promoted on ethical grounds and which ones should be avoided? In particular, should virtuous behavior ever be promoted by strategies that encourage non-virtuous motives, or by strategies that involve cultivating false beliefs?

I hope that a discussion of these questions will appear in future articles on this website.