The social desirable moral overload

Social desirability as the cause of moral overload and its own social desirable effect


Once in my life I have heard someone say: I do not care about the wellbeing of others. I did not know what to think of this; the first that came to mind was that it had to be a joke. But it also made me wonder: why was I so surprised by this statement? It is because most people do care, and it is social desirable to care about others. In the current society people are socially pressured into caring about general welfare. We feel morally obliged to donate money to charity and buy fair trade food. We help our elderly and take care of the new generation.  We are socially pressured to want the best for everyone. Equality is the key. 

This social desirability to care will make it inevitable for us to become morally overloaded.

A moral overload exists when we are confronted by one or multiple situations in which we cannot satisfy all of our morally required goals(Van den hoven, Lokhorst & Van de Poel, 2012). For example you want safety for everyone but you also feel people who made mistakes should be able to get a second chance. This does not always work that well together as seen earlier this week. A woman was beaten to death by a man who was released from preventive detention (AD, 2015; NOS, 2015). In this case the first value, safety, would state that the safety of this woman should be safeguarded. The second value, equal chances, provides that the man deserves a second chance. The Safety value would state that the safety of these women should be safeguarded.  Both sides have a positive and a negative and when choosing either one of these values another value which is also important will be ignored. In this case what would be the best choice: Safety or Equal chances? Questions like this can be the essence of a moral overload. You are socially pressured to care for both this safety and the second chances, but they appear to be opposites of each other.

Now we know why social pressure can cause moral overload, but what is the effect of this moral overload? The moral overload will make sure of two social desirable outcomes:  There will be a better understanding of each other’s opinions and an increase in innovation.

Firstly the existence of moral overload will create a better understanding amongst people.  Imagine As an example I present to you: Kate. You and Kate both consider equal changes and safety as practically equal and both very important, but you both have to choose one over the other. Now you chose equal chances and Kate chose safety.  You and Kate had to struggle with the same decision as you just made. You have considered each other’s arguments because you care about both values. This will improve your understanding of each other’s choices. This understanding for each other’s opinions and choices will be better due to the fact that people will agree with both values behind the choices which caused the moral overload.

Finally after a moral overload has been “solved” by choosing a path moral residue will be left. Moral residue consists of the emotions associated with the unchosen path. It creates an incentive for innovation as a mean to avoid moral overload (Van den Hoven, et al., 2012).  In a way this is related to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the regret over the choice no matter what choice it was. People will do just about anything to avoid the feeling of cognitive dissonance (Forsyth, 2014). This moral residue and cognitive dissonance will work together to force us to innovate. In our despair for a way out of our moral overload and cognitive dissonance might be some of the answers for creating our perfect social desirable involved and equal society.

All in all moral overload can be caused by social desirability and furthermore have the following social desirable consequences: a better understanding and an incentive for responsible innovation.


List of references

  • Forsyth, D. R. (2014). Group Dynamics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Van den Hoven, J., Lokhorst, G., & Van de Poel, I. (2012). Engineering and the Problem of Moral Overload. Science and engineering ethics, 18, 143-155. DOI 10.1007/s11948-011-9277-z
  • Unknown Author from AD. (2015). Ex tbs-er slaat vrouw dood en steekt prostituee neer. Found on 21-10-2015.
  • Unknown Author from RTL Nieuws. (2015). Hoeveel zin heeft het opleggen van tbs. Found on 21-10-2015.
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