Morality and Well-Being

The link between morality and psychological well-being has long- intrigued philosophers, ethicists, and psychologists. The great Greek philosophers, most notably Plato and Aristotle, spoke of the close connection between moral goodness and fitness of mind. Plato, for example, wrote that virtue is “the health and beauty and well-being of the soul,” and those that fail morally will likely end up unhappy, unfulfilled, and physically unwell (Plato, 1973, p. 136). Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia ties together human flourishing with arête, or virtuous living. The great ethicist Immanuel Kant suggested that moral autonomy—or the acceptance of a universal moral law as a guide for personal action—is sustained both by the capacity to reason clearly and goodly amounts of self-respect (Korsgaard, 1996). More recently positive psychologists, such as Peterson and Seligman (2004) have suggested that virtues and character strengths are the markers of psychological well-being, just as the symptoms identified in the diagnostic handbook of psychiatric disorders are the markers of dysfunction.

Because people judge themselves in moral terms, unethical actions are, in general, antithetical to well-being and happiness. Very few studies, however, have directly assessed the causal chain leading from moral misstep to post-transgression self-condemnation to reduction in well-being, so the link between variations in ethics position and well-being is an uncertain one. Kernes and Kinnier (2005) found that the professional psychologists they studied tended to be either absolutists or situationists, but they found no significant relationship between idealism, relativism, and their measures of happiness, life-satisfaction, and well-being. Forsyth, Iyer, and Haidt (2012), in contrast, reported a significant correlation between relativism and levels of well-being, anxiety, and depression. Exceptionists claimed the highest levels of well-being, followed by absolutists, subjectivists, and situationists.

These findings with regards to high level of well-being reported by exceptionists are consistent with cross-cultural differences in overall happiness. Forsyth, O’Boyle, and McDaniel (2008), using meta-analytic methods, identified patterned variations in EPT across countries, with an exceptionist ethic more common in Western countries, subjectivism and situationism in Eastern countries, and absolutism and situationism in Middle Eastern countries. These patterns were systematically related to variations in levels of happiness, as indexed by the Marks, Abdallah, Simms, and Thompson (2006) ratings of global happiness levels. Happiness scores were highest in the countries where more of the citizens reportedly endorsed an exceptionistic ethic (e.g., Canada, Austria, Belgium), but lowest in countries whose mean idealism and relativism scores suggested an absolutist ethic (e.g., Egypt, South Africa, Poland; see Figure). The two clusters of relativistic countries fell intermediate.

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