Skip to main content

Moralizers: The Psychology of Political Correctness

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He's researched a range of psychological traits and disorders.

Moralizers are quick to condemn others.

Moralizers are quick to condemn others.

What are moralizers?

Moralizers are individuals who make frequent moral judgments about people and events that have no direct impact on their lives. They are quick to reach conclusions, and will make their judgment known to as many people as possible. As a result, moralizers revel in political correctness, and will use it to condemn and destroy the reputation of those who don't conform.

The individual psychology that generates our proclivity for condemnation may merely be a heightened sense of empathy or sensitivity. However, it may have a more opaque and pernicious cause. This article will discuss the possibility that moralizing serves a duel purpose of enhancing one’s reputation while destroying that of another. This abusive function may have evolved to increase the status of the moralizer.

Despite abuse, morality is the bedrock of civilization, and an evolutionary blueprint for reciprocity, friendship, and love. Without an aversion to causing harm, social chaos, or bodily defilement, society could not function. War, murder and disease would be rampant, and our technological and scientific advances would never have transpired.

As a species, we recognise these benefits, and are tuned towards enforcing a moral code. However, to achieve our desired utopia, we rely on the judgments of others and reward their vigilance with increased trust and friendship. It is this reward that may cause moralizers to abuse the system by indiscriminately declaring moral transgressions.

Right wing political correctness

The Politics of PC

Political correctness isn't exclusively a left wing or a right wing phenomenon; it is a human problem. Both sides of the political spectrum condemn non-conformers for different reasons. Blaming the problem on liberals or conservatives shows an ignorance associated with an extreme position on the opposite side.

The absurdity of political correctness

Political correctness is often the moralizer’s weapon of choice. It is defined as excessive deference to the sensibilities of others, and commonly concerns issues of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or religion. An expression or viewpoint becomes politically correct when it is culturally imposed as a replacement for unfavorable terms or opinion.

The absurdity of political correctness is borne out on the `euphemism treadmill’. Words become politically incorrect when they become popular enough to be used by people who use them in a derogatory way. These `dysphemisms' are replaced by politically correct words, or euphemisms. Eventually, the replacements become popular enough to be used by bigots, and the whole cycle begins again. For example, the `N’ word was replaced by `black’, which has now become `African American'.

Rather than recognizing the importance of context and intent, we have instead noticed that bigots like short words. As a result, we've burdened our language with multi-syllable expressions such as intellectually disabled, visually impaired, and Native American.

Moralizers are attracted to politically correct terms because they are well-known, and therefore effective. They seek them out, and build a conceptual dictionary of politically correct expressions that can be used to bash non-conformers over the head with.

Some individuals use a different tool. Religion is used by moralizers to condemn people for a plethora of cultural wrongs, and the Bible is often interpreted so that it may perform this function. The union of religion with the political right is why political correctness is often a liberal phenomenon. Without religion, our common proclivity for moralizing must find another outlet.

Whether disgust, anger, or contempt, moral condemnation is typically fueled by emotion.

Whether disgust, anger, or contempt, moral condemnation is typically fueled by emotion.

The psychology of political correctness

Remarking on someone’s moral transgressions has the effect of harming their reputation and bolstering one's own. Those making frequent moral judgments in public are seen to be morally concerned individuals. This demonstrates trustworthiness and an adherence to common principles, bringing increased trade and friendship opportunities. This reward may motivate individuals to become moralizers.

In support of this theory, Jonathan Haidt has performed a number of psychology experiments to show that our moral judgments are fueled by emotion. This emotional reasoning produces an intuitive judgment of wrongdoing. We feel anger in response to harm, disgust in response to the diseased, and compassion to maintain or generate friendship by demonstrating our concern. These moral emotions are triggered by events that threaten us, our allies, or our potential allies. Indeed, emotions evolved to unconsciously and unavoidably bias our actions in beneficial ways. Haidt found that the presence of emotion is what separates moral rules from conventional rules, meaning that morality must serve a partially selfish purpose.

How we attempt to comprehend these intuitive judgments is even more fascinating. In one experiment, Haidt asked participants to read a vignette in which a brother and sister described an incestuous encounter. Haidt was careful to state that it was completely secret, the sibling relationship was not ruined, there was no chance of procreation, and they had decided against a repeat encounter. When participants were asked what they thought of the vignette, most claimed it was disgusting and morally wrong. However, when asked to justify their intuitive judgment, they were unable because all avenues had been removed (procreation, ostracism, destroyed relationship, etc). The participants were described as morally dumbfounded, i.e. they thought something was wrong but couldn't explain why.

This tells us that people are more disposed to justify their emotion-based moral judgments than question them. In other words, we are motivated to justify any intuitive moral judgment we produce, no matter how irrational. In terms of human evolution, this capacity for moralizing can only exist if it serves a salubrious purpose. Given that morally concerned individuals receive a greater number of trade and friendship opportunities, this purpose may explain the evolutionary psychology of political correctness.

Never be afraid to say what you think.

Never be afraid to say what you think.


Moral judgments promote a singular interpretation of ambiguous events, and a commitment to one absolute truth. Thus, emotion-based moral judgments will always simplify complicated situations, leading to the condemnation of innocent individuals. Moralizers make these judgments prolifically, and will add to their repertoire of outrageous and offensive transgressions by generating and memorizing a panoply of politically correct expressions. They are motivated by the rewards of their endeavor, such as increased opportunities for trust and friendship, and feelings of self-righteousness.

Scroll to Continue

As society inches towards moral fulfillment, the opportunity for moralizing becomes smaller, and the incentive to create new politically correct expressions becomes greater. Political correctness is our herd instinct telling us how to garner praise from our comrades so we can flatten our enemies. As with most cultural deficiencies, it is a problem that can best be solved with education and reason.


big daddy oreo on February 02, 2015:

How do you go about changing your skin color from white to black? Is there some kind of dark chocolate tan?

brian on January 29, 2015:

I think that is a myth. Most black people I talk to say police do not bother them.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 28, 2015:

But how will you deal with getting pulled over by cops all the time?

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 01, 2013:

Thanks for the comments SilentReed and LibertyCell. SR, I think you're talking more about sparing people from embarrassment. In other words, being polite by withholding harmful truths or telling white lies. That's not the same at political correctness, but I think I've heard the term used that way. I don't think it's the correct meaning though.

LC, that's closer to how PC is defined - It has certainly morphed into a way of stifling discussion by assuming the other person is guilty of racism, sexism or some other discriminatory behavior because they used a politically incorrect word or viewpoint (e.g. the N-word).

Jim Lyde from Austin, Texas on April 30, 2013:

I disagree, SilentReed. I don't think PC was ever intended to provide a way of "saving face." PC was "invented" to challenge the stubborn use of racist terms despite the movement toward equality within the society. PC was successful, in the main. It has continued beyond that, and now is used to stifle discussion - not because one is wrong based on the truth of issues, but because one is wrong because one had the temerity to even broach the subject.

SilentReed from Philippines on April 30, 2013:

Our sense of morality is base on our belief and value system of what defines right or wrong. Being honest and straightforward does not mean one has to be blunt in speech. Political correctness may be another euphemism for "saving face", which is an Asian concept that allows the other party to keep intact their dignity. This allows all parties concern room to maneuver and diplomatically arrive at a mutual agreement.This is often misconstrue by Western "frankness" as evasive and a kind of doublespeak. Like you, I too would prefer the term "Moralizers" for political correctness instead of the more offensive "Hypocrites", which is nowhere to be found in this well written article.:)

Jim Lyde from Austin, Texas on March 20, 2013:

Thank you Mr. Swan! That fixed it.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 18, 2013:

The default option is comments are on, so you must have deleted the capsule box. In edit mode, if you look at the choice of capsules to the top right, there is one called comments. That probably puts them back in.

Jim Lyde from Austin, Texas on March 18, 2013:

Thanks for looking. I'm sorry, I am new to this and don't know how to turn on the comments section.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 18, 2013:

I gave your hub a read, but you don't seem to have the comments section turned on.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 18, 2013:

Thanks Liberty Cell. I think PC can be applied indiscriminately by people when they hear the trigger word. There may be some conditions like political allegiance - for example, a democrat hearing a republican use the word `spastic' instead of intellectually disabled wouldn't care who the republican is. This could be anyone right-wing; meaning half the population, which is pretty indiscriminate. Some people don't even have preconditions like that though. They'll literally condemn anyone who accidentally uses the wrong word. Britain is not as divided down the middle as America. Even the most left-wing candidate will be condemned by liberals for using the wrong word, and vice versa. I agree that once the "sin" is committed, it becomes very personal and demonizing, but in terms of selecting a target, it is more often indiscriminate in my opinion. I'll take a look at your hub.

Jim Lyde from Austin, Texas on March 17, 2013:

Excellent, but a little too "PC!" Ex. "indiscriminately declaring moral transgressions" - declaring moral transgressions is usually VERY discriminate, specific and planned. PC is often knowingly used to demonize, defer, deflect and otherwise avoid unwinnable discussions if based on the validity of issues. I would appreciate your comments on my Hub, "The Folly of Political Correctness."

Related Articles