Moral judgment refers to the determination a person makes about an action (or inaction), motive, situation, or person in relation to standards of goodness or rightness. People articulate a moral judgment, for example, when they say that an action is right or wrong, that a person is good or bad, or that a situation is just or unjust. Athletes frequently make moral judgments about moral issues that arise in sports, and such judgments have been investigated by sport psychologists. This entry distinguishes moral judgment from moral reasoning, reviews methods of investigating moral judgments, and summarizes key findings from the sport-related moral judgment literature.
Moral Judgment and Moral Reasoning
The terms moral judgment and moral reasoning have sometimes been used interchangeably. For example, the influential moral psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called his scoring manual The Measurement of Moral Judgment. In reality, the manual was written as a guide to scoring the developmental stage of a person’s moral reasoning. As the field of moral research evolved, however, a more refined vocabulary also developed and moral judgment was often distinguished from moral reasoning, typically representing its conclusion. Thus, many researchers use the term moral judgment when referring to the outcome of a process of moral reasoning. A moral judgment is the conclusion that a person reaches about the ethical quality of something or someone. A moral judgment is a moral evaluation.
The term moral judgment, however, remains controversial. Reflecting a broader debate in cognitive psychology, there is dispute over the role of explicit reasoning versus more implicit and unconscious processes. The central question is this: When people say that an action is right or wrong, good or bad, is their judgment the result of conscious, deliberative processes (i.e., moral reasoning), or is it a result of unconscious motives and intuitions? Certainly people can offer moral reasons for their beliefs, but some theorists see those reasons as genuinely motivating the person’s beliefs, while others see those reasons as simply post-hoc rationalizations for moral judgments that have their actual origins in unconscious processes.
James Rest has provided one of the most influential accounts of moral action processes, which are instructive to how these relate moral reasoning and judgment. For Rest, before a person can behave morally in any situation, a set of psychological processes, divided into four categories, must activate and function optimally. First, a person must interpret the situation. Second, a person must engage in moral reasoning; that is, he or she must weigh any competing moral issues and form a mature and responsible judgment about what should be done. Third, the moral judgment must be prioritized over other values and action choices. Finally, the person must put their moral intention into action.
It is Rest’s second set of processes that are relevant here. In the second component of his model, the potential moral agent needs to arrive at a moral judgment. The agent needs to consider all of the morally relevant information, apply their moral reasoning to it, and make a decision about what should be done. Rest acknowledges that not all moral reasoning is conscious and deliberate; some of it is rather automatic and habitual. Moreover, moral reasoning itself has both structural and content dimensions to it. In other words, it reflects both a person’s mode of thinking, which is influenced by their level of cognitive sophistication, and their specific beliefs, attitudes, and values, which reflect a range of individual and cultural influences. The key point here is that this complex process of moral reasoning—both conscious and unconscious, influenced both by stage of development and specific moral beliefs—leads to a situationally specific judgment about what morality requires the actor to do.
The Assessment of Moral Judgment
Moral judgments are typically assessed in a straightforward fashion. The researcher, for example, may present study participants with pictures or stories of legal, illegal, and/or ambiguous actions in a sport setting and ask respondents to make judgments about whether the depicted actions are okay. These determinations are often referred to as legitimacy judgments. Judgments about cheating, aggression, and doping have been the most frequently investigated, along with specific sets of actions designated as antisocial or prosocial behavior.
Brenda Bredemeier developed a moral judgment measure called the Continuum of Injurious Acts (CIA). The CIA consists of a set of six cards describing aggressive acts in basketball that have intended consequences that become increasingly more serious. The CIA cards are presented in random sequence to respondents, who sort them into those deemed legitimate and those judged as illegitimate. Variants of the CIA, adapted to different sport settings, have been used by a number of other sport researchers.
Another moral judgment measure is the Hahm–Beller Values Choice Inventory (HBVCI). Though it has sometimes been said to measure moral reasoning maturity, it is more accurately described as an assessment of moral judgment. Respondents are asked to indicate how much they agree or disagree with a set of scenarios, each of which briefly describes a moral belief. The HBVCI items are designed to determine the extent of respondents’ agreement with deontic ethics (i.e., a philosophical approach that states actions have inherent moral qualities that are independent of the consequences of the actions).
A number of instruments have been developed by sport psychologists that combine moral judgments with other related constructs. For example, Dawn Stephens and colleagues developed the Judgments About Moral Behavior in Sport Questionnaire (JAMBYSQ). The instrument consists of three soccer scenarios, each depicting hypothetical protagonists faced with choices about whether to engage in unfair but advantageous behaviors (specifically, lie to an official, hurt an opponent, and violate a game rule). Piloted with upper elementary female soccer players, the instrument was designed to assess respondents’ (a) fair play action tendencies; (b) moral judgments—that is, what they thought the protagonist should do; (c) moral motives; and (d) perceptions of team norms pertaining to unfair play behavior. Both Stephens and other researchers have adapted the measure to fit a variety of other ages and sports. Similarly, Sandra Gibbons and colleagues developed a hybrid measure that asked respondents to answer three questions about each of 10 behaviors. The three questions were designed to tap moral judgment, moral reason, and moral intention.
Maria Kavussanu and her colleagues have developed a number of measures that tap moral judgment. In some studies, similar to the Bredemeier methodology, she has asked respondents to rate the moral legitimacy of a list of acts. In other studies, she has used hybrid measures, similar to those of Stephens and Gibbons, which assess moral judgments, along with other components of Rest’s moral functioning model.
Moral Judgments in Sport Research
Why does one athlete believe that doping is okay, while another believes it is cheating and immoral? Moral judgments (e.g., moral beliefs about what is right) do not have a single biographical, psychological, psychosocial, or cultural source. Such judgments reflect a broad and diverse range of influences. For example, various studies have shown that such demographic characteristics as one’s age, gender, race, and economic status often influence moral judgments. Male athletes, for example, tend to be more lenient in their moral judgments of aggression than female athletes.
In addition to demographic characteristics, there is a range of other influences on moral judgments. A person’s level or stage of moral reasoning, while not determinative of moral judgments, is one developmental variable that influences judgment. Other sources have also been investigated, including moral identity, affective self-regulatory efficacy, self-esteem, and, most especially, motivation.
Researchers in the area of achievement motivation (or goal orientation) have shown consistently that there is a significant empirical link between motivation and morality. Those individuals who participate in achievement contexts like sport because they are motivated to pursue learning, growth, and mastery are much more likely to make prosocial, positive moral judgments, such as endorsing fair play and condemning cheating and aggression, than those whose motivation is primarily to demonstrate superiority over others.
A variety of contextual influences also affect moral judgments. Not surprisingly, moral judgments are influenced by the sport and competitive level. For example, recreational golfers may, on average, make different moral judgments about the legitimacy of steroid use than professional baseball players.
One major influence on moral judgments that has received considerable attention is the moral atmosphere. The term moral atmosphere refers to the shared, collective moral norms of a group. David Shields and colleagues opened this line of research in the sport realm by developing the Team Norm Questionnaire, a simple six-item assessment that asked athletes to estimate the number of their teammates who would engage in ethically inappropriate behavior (i.e., cheating and aggression) if it would help their team win and, second, whether the coach would want them to do it. Other researchers have developed similar measures of moral atmosphere and have documented that shared norms have a significant influence on individual judgments and behavior.
Like the moral atmosphere, the motivational climate has also been shown to influence moral judgment. The motivational climate refers to social cues that tend to elicit either a task or mastery motivational orientation or an ego or performance orientation. For example, when a coach emphasizes winning or normative ability, it tends to encourage an ego orientation. In contrast, when a coach emphasizes doing one’s best and praises effort more than outcome, a mastery climate is fostered that supports task motivation. Generally, a performance climate—one that augments an ego goal orientation focused on outperforming others—tends to result in more antisocial judgments.
Another important question is the relationship between judgment and action. From research in both general psychology and sport psychology (SP), it is clear that moral judgments are neither irrelevant nor determinative when it comes to predicting or understanding moral action. People sometimes act consistently with their moral beliefs, but situational factors may override moral judgments. For example, when there are high expected benefits associated with acting in antisocial ways, athletes may act inconsistently with their more “abstract” moral judgments. Similarly, when intense emotions are activated, moral judgments may be overridden.
Moral judgments also can be suspended through processes of moral disengagement. In other words, an athlete who normally judges aggressive acts as wrong may, nonetheless, engage in an aggressive act and excuse her behavior by blaming the other party—“she started it.” Drawing from the work of Albert Bandura, sport researchers such as Maria Kavussanu have investigated a number of psychosocial moral disengagement processes that function to suspend a person’s normal moral judgment.
In conclusion, a moral judgment reflects a person’s assessment of the moral quality of something (e.g., an action, person, policy, institution). Athletes and coaches make moral judgments frequently as they consider behavioral options ranging from the obviously deplorable to the clearly praiseworthy. To increase the likelihood that moral judgments will guide behavior, athletes and coaches can seek to prioritize ethics, promote task motivation, foster a mastery motivational climate, and implement strategies to counter the temptation to use processes of moral disengagement.
- Bredemeier, B., & Shields, D. (1998). Assessing moral constructs in physical activity settings. In J. Duda (Ed.), Advances in sport and exercise psychology measurement (pp. 257–276). New York: Fitness Information Technology.
- Gibbons, S. I., Ebbeck, V., & Weiss, M. R. (1995). Fair play for kids: Effects on the moral development of children in physical education. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 66, 247–255.
- Kavussanu, M. (2002). Dimensions of morality and their determinants in sport. Psychology: The Journal of the Hellenic Psychological Society. Special Issue: Issues of Psychology of Exercise and Sport, 9, 514–530.
- Kavussanu, M., & Boardley, I.D. (2012). Moral behavior.In G. Tenenbaum, R. Eklund, & A. Kamata (Eds.),Measurement in sport and exercise psychology (pp.443–454). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development. Vol.2: The psychology of moral development. SanFrancisco: Harper & Row.
- Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (2007). Advances in sport morality research. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp.662–684). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Stephens, D. E., & Bredemeier, B. J. L. (1996). Moral atmosphere and judgments about aggression in girls’ soccer: Relationships among moral and motivational variables. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 18,158–173.