Why We Create Moral Issues: How moralizing creates legitimacy
When Barack Obama announced that he was supporting same-sex marriage, he cast the discussion in moral terms. The focus of his remarks was on fairness. He pointed out, for example, that there are gay men and women serving in the military who are not free to marry the people they love. That is unfair.
The concept of fairness is a moral value. Why are discussions of issues like gay marriage turned into moral issues? There are many ways that this discussion could have been frame. For example, the President could have focused on the economic benefits for couples to have the option to marry.
One reason by President Obama framed his discussion as a moral issue is that opposition to gay marriage has also been cast in moral terms. Opponents of gay marriage often have strong religious views that make homosexual behavior broadly and gay marriage in particular a moral issue. So, Obama was simply fighting one moral value with another.
But that doesn’t explain why everyone feels that an issue like gay marriage should be discussed in moral terms.
An interesting paper by Daniel Effron and Dale Miller in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores this issue. They point out that the psychological value of creating a moral issue is that it gives people a legitimate reason to have an opinion on an issue.
Most of the time, we give people the right to weigh in on an issue when it affects them directly. If someone threw garbage all over my lawn, it would make sense if I was angry about it in the morning, because my house was affected directly. It would be strange, though, if a stranger walking through the neighborhood got angry about it. After all, she is not affected by the mess. If, however, she turns it into a moral issue, then we, as a community, give her the right to have an opinion about what happened.