Is Universal Morality a Myth? NSSR Graduate Investigates

Bernhard Leidner (pictured here with his brother Andreas) received his PhD at The New School's 2010 Commencement.

Is a moral sense immutable and concrete, or does it change based on circumstance? And if it does change, is there such a thing as a moral sense at all, or simply a desire to see one’s own interests advanced?

In an era in which the validity of torture continues to occupy national debate, such questions have become matters of immediate political concern. New School for Social Research graduate Bernhard Leidner ’10 has added his voice to the conversation with research he conducted for his NSSR psychology dissertation.

Working with Emanuele Castano, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Leidner investigated how notions of right and wrong are affected by group affiliation. In his experiments, Leidner presented participants with fabricated newspaper articles about military troops accused of atrocities against Iraqi prisoners. One set of subjects read an article in which the offending troops were Australian; another set of subjects received an otherwise identical article in which the soldiers were American. The subjects, all of whom were American, were far more likely to demand justice for the Iraqis when the accused soldiers were Australian. In other words, shared nationality seemed to trump universal morality.

Basically, what we found is that people don’t have one moral compass, but two: one for the group they’re in, and one for others,, Leidner says. People shift away from moral principles of justice and fairness toward principles of loyalty and authority.,

Leidner’s work with Castano earned the pair a 2009’2011 grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for further investigation into the realm of moral relativity, with a specific focus on torture. Having completed this work (as well as a postgraduate fellowship at the University of California, Davis), Leidner will assume the post of assistant professor of psychology of peace and violence at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this summer.

Castano predicts big things for his former student. While I am suffering from his departure,, he says, I am thrilled to see him taking on an excellent position and begin his own academic career.,