The Construction of Morals


Laws may have indirect social effects that can either strengthen or attenuate the formal sanctions they impose. Recent theoretical advances argue that in communities where a proscribed activity is prevalent, permissive laws liberalize attitudes towards partakers and increase utility, thereby amplifying the direct effect of the law. The opposite occurs in communities where the proscribed activity is rare. Indirect social effects arise as laws cause individuals to update their beliefs about the prevalence of the proscribed activity. To test these predictions, we randomized data entry workers to transcribe newspaper summaries of liberal or conservative court decisions about obscenity and then randomly assigned one group to report their standards of morality and another group to estimate community standards with incentive pay for accuracy. Liberal decisions liberalize individual and perceived community standards of morality, yet frequent attendees of religious services become more conservative and perceive community standards becoming more liberal. Workers update beliefs about the prevalence of proscribed sexual activities differently in response to liberal or conservative decisions. Liberal obscenity decisions increase worker satisfaction overall, but decrease satisfaction among religious workers, who also identify more as Republican. These results provide causal evidence for a model predicting when law has backlash or expressive effects and suggests that legitimacy of law can affect utility and self-identification.