Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ana Gantman

Committee Members

Steven Young

Keith Markus

Cheryl Carmichael

Subject Categories

Social Psychology


moral psychology, emotivism, cognitivism, complexity science, network analysis, social psychology


When something is morally wrong, it is in the moral domain; when something becomes morally wrong, it is moralized. But how do we know when something is in the moral domain, and how can we tell whether something is becoming moralized? The empirical study of morality, or a given person’s judgment of what constitutes moral virtue or vice, has historically approached these questions through one of three theoretical perspectives: cognitivism, which argues that people primarily or mostly use effortful thought to judge right from wrong; emotivism, which sees these judgments as flowing from emotion; and dual-process models, which see cognition and emotion as distinct systems which independently or interactively produce moral judgments. Through a synthesis of the relevant literature, I argue that some aspects of morality point to the need for an additional perspective. Drawing inspiration from fields beyond moral psychology, this work recasts morality as a complex system. More specifically, morality is constituted by a causal web of interrelated thoughts and emotions, the collective behavior of which defines the space of the moral domain and the process of moralization. By this view, the “moral domain” is no longer a discrete category of moral vs non-moral stimuli, but rather a sliding scale that ranges from relative moral irrelevance to moral relevance. “Moralization” is the process by which various thoughts and emotions about a stimulus become more or less interrelated or “connected” with each other, resulting in the stimulus moving up or down the sliding scale of the moral domain. After arguing why and how the complex systems perspective could be useful for the study of morality, I use a combination of exploratory and confirmatory empirical approaches to answer questions asked from the perspective of morality as a complex system. The results suggest that qualitatively distinct issue areas — namely smoking cigarettes, which has the quality of violating the body, and gun ownership, which lacks salient bodily violations — follow a domain-general structural pattern. While the role of perceived suffering was relatively less important for smoking than gun ownership, it was paradoxically more important to explaining why people oppose harm reduction policy — a finding which would not have followed from the usual perspectives of moral psychology. The study of moralization can greatly benefit from studying the moral domain and moralization as a complex system.