People assign a higher moral standing to the people, animals, landscapes, and buildings they find beautiful, according to research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study further suggested that this is because people perceive beautiful targets to be more pure.
It has been previously suggested that people perceive targets as having moral standing when they are perceived to be capable of experiencing their own mental states, sensations, and feelings — a concept the psychology field refers to as mind perception. Study authors Christoph Klebl and his colleagues wanted to explore an additional mechanism that might explain how people ascribe moral standing to entities that are non-sentient, such as buildings and landscapes.
“I am interested in understanding why and when people morally care about other people, animals, or nature,” explained Klebl, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. “We already know that mental capacities influence the degree to which people care about targets. For example, people have a greater desire to protect animals that are intelligent and have a greater capacity to suffer. People typically care more about mammals than about fish because mammals are more intelligent and more likely to be capable of suffering.”
“I wanted to know whether there are other factors that influence whether people want to protect targets. I was especially interested in beauty and ugliness judgments because there is a lot of anecdotal (but less so experimental) evidence that aesthetic judgments influence whether people care about entities.”
“And I was interested whether (unlike mental capacities) beauty and ugliness influences whether people care about non-sentient entities,” Klebl told PsyPost. “For example, aesthetic arguments had played a major role in disputes about environmental protection. In the dispute over whether Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be protected from oil development the former U.S. Interior Secretary Gail Norton, opposing the protection of the refuge, has referred to it as a ‘godforsaken mosquito-infested swamp shrouded in frozen darkness half the year,’ whereas former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, supporting its protection, has referred to it as a ‘place of solitude, unmatched beauty, and grandeur.’”
The researchers define moral standing as “morally mattering for their own sake.” They proposed that people refer to a target’s beauty when making judgments of moral status, whether or not a target has the ability to feel suffering. They suggest that beauty elicits the perception of purity, while ugliness evokes impurity.
Klebl and his team conducted a series of studies to explore this. A first study presented subjects with six images of three different animals. For each animal, there was a ‘beautiful’ and an ‘ugly’ version. Participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of each animal and to rate the extent that they felt a desire to protect the animal (an assessment of moral standing). They also rated the extent that the animal evoked purity.
As expected, participants rated the beautiful animals as more attractive than the ugly animals. They also reported feeling a stronger desire to protect the beautiful animals, and this effect was mediated by perceptions of purity and usefulness — suggesting that people viewed the beautiful animals as having a higher moral standing than the ugly animals because the more attractive animals were perceived to have greater purity and utility.
A next study more or less mirrored these results, but with images of human faces instead of animals. The results revealed that people felt a stronger desire to protect individuals with attractive faces compared to those with unattractive faces. This effect was explained by greater perceptions of purity and utility and lower perceptions of sadness.
A third study further replicated these effects with landscapes, showing that people felt a stronger desire to protect beautiful landscapes compared to ugly landscapes that were similar in size and surroundings. Again, purity and utility mediated this effect, and this time, aliveness and inspiration were additional mediators — suggesting that people felt more motivated to protect beautiful landscapes because they appeared more pure, useful, inspiring, and alive.
Another study found evidence of the same effect among inanimate objects. People felt a greater desire to protect beautiful buildings compared to ugly buildings, and this was mediated by the extent that subjects’ found the buildings to be pure, inspiring, and useful. It was also mediated by the perceived age of the building, suggesting that participants felt the beautiful buildings were more worthy of being protected because they were perceived as more historical and culturally valuable.
Two additional studies found further evidence of this effect using a more direct measure of moral standing. This time, participants completed a moral standing scale, that assessed whether a target morally matters for its own sake. For both images of animals and images of buildings, the more attractive targets were again attributed higher moral standing.
Overall, across all studies, people consistently rated attractive targets as having a higher moral standing, through the perception that these attractive targets were more pure. The findings indicate “that judgments of beauty and ugliness are important in people’s morality. For example, this can explain why we discriminate against people with facial disfigurement or why we feel less inclined to donate money for ugly endangered species (e.g., the aye-aye) than beautiful species (e.g., red pandas),” Klebl said.
Klebl and colleagues note that their findings have implications when it comes to boosting moral concern for parts of the world that are non-sentient, such as the environment. They suggest that appeals to beauty might help increase moral concern for wildlife, ecosystems, and architecture.
“I hope this research helps to make people aware of their biases which allows them to counteract those biases and have more positive attitudes toward entities that are less aesthetically appealing,” Klebl said. “I focused on the general role of beauty and ugly judgments in whether people care about people, animals, and nature. What would be next is to find out how this is shaped by personal preferences and cultural differences.”
The study, “Beyond Aesthetic Judgment: Beauty Increases Moral Standing Through Perceptions of Purity”, was authored by Christoph Klebl, Yin Luo, and Brock Bastian.