Moral Expansiveness: Examining Variability in the Extension of the Moral World

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Abstract

The nature of our moral judgments—and the extent to which we treat others with care—depend in part on the distinctions we make between entities deemed worthy or unworthy of moral consideration—our moral boundaries. Philosophers, historians, and social scientists have noted that people’s moral boundaries have expanded over the last few centuries, but the notion of moral expansiveness has received limited empirical attention in psychology. This research explores variations in the size of individuals’ moral boundaries using the psychological construct of moral expansiveness and introduces the Moral Expansiveness Scale (MES), designed to capture this variation. Across 6 studies, we established the reliability, convergent validity, and predictive validity of the MES. Moral expansiveness was related (but not reducible) to existing moral constructs (moral foundations, moral identity, “moral” universalism values), predictors of moral standing (moral patiency and warmth), and other constructs associated with concern for others (empathy, identification with humanity, connectedness to nature, and social responsibility). Importantly, the MES uniquely predicted willingness to engage in prosocial intentions and behaviors at personal cost independently of these established constructs. Specifically, the MES uniquely predicted willingness to prioritize humanitarian and environmental concerns over personal and national self-interest, willingness to sacrifice one’s life to save others (ranging from human out-groups to animals and plants), and volunteering behavior. Results demonstrate that moral expansiveness is a distinct and important factor in understanding moral judgments and their consequences.

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