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Moral Illusions Explained

We are familiar with optical illusions and how they affect what we see. Just as our eyes (and other senses) can be fooled, our moral sense can also be tricked.

Teaching Notes

Human beings’ five physical senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) are all subject to being fooled by illusions. Additionally, evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker writes: “It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions—the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks.  … Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense.” That new field is behavioral ethics, a subject emphasized on the Ethics Unwrapped website.

During the long course of human evolution, the five physical senses – especially sight, hearing, and touch – have been critical for survival. It makes sense, then, that these physical senses are probably better calibrated than our moral sense. Although these physical senses are clearly subject to illusions (as the McGurk effect illustrates) Robin Kar, a professor of law and philosophy, warns:

“…moral illusions are more than just errors.  They are persistent and species-typical tendencies toward error, which can be especially hard to identify and correct because we are subject to them collectively.  Our human species of moral vision is, moreover, the basic lens though which we either bring moral facts sharply into focus or distort them, and so we cannot simply rely on this vision to determine which we are doing.”

This video explains that the self-serving bias is a moral illusion. The self-serving bias (which affects everyone) distorts how people gather, process, and even remember information in ways that serve their self-interest and their established beliefs. This often leads well-intentioned people to conclude that what is good for them, is what is good. This is, of course, a moral illusion.

There are many, many other moral illusions caused by social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and even situational factors that people are unaware are affecting their moral judgments, decisions, and actions. These pressures, biases, and situational factors are the subject of behavioral ethics research.

Here are two more examples of moral illusions to consider, which are described by the research of behavioral ethics:

In-group Bias

The in-group/out-group bias may cause people to unfairly discriminate in favor of friends, relatives and other members of their perceived in-group and against out-group members. Indeed, studies show that people use different parts of their brain to judge the actions of in-group members and out-group members. Therefore, people are likely to judge the actions of out-group members more harshly without even realizing that they are doing so. For example, we may harshly condemn the morals of out-group members who, say, drink too much and become boisterous, while finding rationalizations to excuse similar actions by members of our in-group. Our belief that we are judging both groups using the same moral yardstick is a moral illusion.

Just World Hypothesis

The “Just World” view is an interesting phenomenon. People, it seems, can sleep better at night if they believe that the world is generally a fair place. So, in order to avoid constant anxiety, most people tend to believe that world is, in fact, a just place. Therefore, when people read about strangers who were the victims of a crime or a serious accident, people tend to believe (just a bit!) that those victims deserved what happened to them. Then, people can tell themselves that because they are good people who live in a just world, these kinds of bad things are unlikely to happen to them. This Just World Hypothesis is a moral illusion that often causes people to unfairly blame the victim of an unfortunate incident.

Intro to Behavioral Ethics

Intro to Behavioral Ethics

Behavioral Ethics investigates why people make the ethical (and unethical) decisions that they do in order to gain insights into how people can improve their ethical decision-making and behavior.


Self-Serving Bias

Self-Serving Bias

The Self-Serving Bias is the tendency people have to process information in ways that advance their own self-interest or support their pre-existing views.


Image Resources

Impossible Trident Illusion Kanizsa Triangle Illusion

These two popular optical illusions can be used in class discussions on moral illusions. Remember, just like our visual and other physical senses can be fooled, so too can our moral sense.

Additional Resources

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

The most recent article written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice describes the basics of behavioral ethics and introduces Ethics Unwrapped videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples. It also includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. Published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), it can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article written by Robert Prentice, with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, was published in Journal of Legal Studies Education and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated (but still serviceable) introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.


Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (Routledge, 2020)

Robin Bradley Kar, The Two Faces of Morality: How Evolutionary Theory Can Both Vindicate and Debunk Morality (with a Special Nod to the Growing Importance of Law, p. 31, in Evolution and Morality (James E. Fleming & Sanford Levinson, eds., 2012)

Steven Pinker, The Moral Instinct, p. 61, in Understanding Moral Sentiments: Darwinian Perspectives? (Hilary Putnam, Susan Neiman & Jeffrey P. Schloss, Eds., 2014).

Transcript of Narration

You know the five physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But did you know we also have a moral sense? It’s what helps guide our moral judgments and actions.

You know that pit that opens up in your stomach when you’re about to do something wrong? That’s your moral sense kicking in. But beware! The brain can be fooled.

Ever seen an optical illusion? Take a look at this. What do you see? Not everything is as it seems. Even sound can trick your brain.

Watch this. [BaBaBa sound effect plays] What do you hear? [BaBaBa sound effect plays]  What about now? [BaBaBa sound effect plays] The only sound that ever bounced off your eardrums was “Bababa,” but the brain prioritizes what we see over what we hear. So, you probably heard “Fafafa” the second time. This illusion is known as the McGurk Effect. [BaBaBa sound effect plays] Pretty wild, huh?

Just as our brain can be tricked by optical and auditory illusions, our moral sense can also be fooled.

For example, because our brain has evolved to help us survive, we tend to process information in ways that serve our self-interest. Often, what is best for us, seems to us to be what is best. But this is a moral illusion. It’s called the self-serving bias.

There are many ways moral illusions can lead even the most well-meaning people astray. All the psychological biases, mental shortcuts, social pressures, and other factors such as time pressure and stress that are described by behavioral ethics research create moral illusions. Learning about behavioral ethics can help you uncover these moral illusions. And it can also help you learn how to guard against them.