Social equality as a moral ideal

How do you motivate people to strive for equal opportunities? According to social psychologist Serena Does, by appealing to their sense of morality. PhD defence 14 May.

Ideal versus duty

Through her research, Does discovered that people are more positive towards social equality if it is treated as a moral ideal rather than a moral duty.


Does: ‘Earlier studies have shown that it is important for people that they and the social groups to which they belong are regarded as having high morals. In other words: that they act in an honest and just way. I predicted that presenting social equality in moral terms could be a way of motivating people to promote equality. At the same time, moralising about equality could demotivate people because then they find the subject too threatening. You can better focus on the immorality of inequality. I wanted to study this contradiction, so I looked at the effects of presenting equality as a moral ideal rather than a moral duty.’

Two formulations

Does asked participants to read texts that presented equality in two different ways. In one case, equal opportunities between native Dutch people and non-Dutch people were described as a moral ideal for which we can strive. In the other case, equality was treated as a moral duty that we have to observe. To determine the effects of these two different formulations, Does asked participants to read the texts, then she asked them about their thoughts on equality. Participants who had read the moral ideal version were shown to be more positive about such issues as diversity and about positive action towards equality.

Mosaic subsidy

Serena Does was awarded a Mosaic subsidy in 2008 by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The aim of the Mosaic programme is to encourage graduates from minority groups to take up academic positions.

Physical responses

In other studies, Does and her colleagues asked participants, who had just read the two formulations, to hold a discussion with someone from an ethnic minority group. The researchers studied physical responses such as raised blood pressure or more frequent blinking of the eyes to determine how stressed the participants were during the discussion.

Developing policy

The findings of Does’s research can contribute to developing measures and policies aimed at motivating majority groups to promote equality. Does: ‘Majority groups generally have more power than minorities. These groups are therefore valuable players in the struggle for greater equality between groups.’

(6 May 2013)

See also

Studying in Leiden



Last Modified: 14-05-2013