Moral Judgment

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development. Vol.2: The psychology of moral development. SanFrancisco: Harper & Row.
  6. Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

See also: