Moral Beauty, Politics, Gender, and Personality

August 9th, 2010 by Rhett

To engage with moral beauty means to see the beauty of virtues in others (and perhaps in ourselves).  As Joe Sachs has argued, Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics has described the virtues as the signs of beauty. In Sach’s translation of the NE Aristotle says that a virtue is “for the sake of the beautiful, for this is the end of virtue” (1115 b, 12-13), and that philanthropy is “for the sake of the beautiful, for this is common to the virtues” (1122 b, 7-8).

How is the quality of being engaged by moral beauty related to political ideology, gender, and various personality constructs, moral foundations, and values? To examine these questions the Engagement with Beauty Scale (EBS) was placed on in May 2009 and 5,039 participants completed it by April 19, 2010. The EBS is a 14-item self-report scale comprised of three subscales: engagement with natural beauty (α = .81), engagement with artistic beauty (α = .86), and engagement with moral beauty (α = .91); summing those 3 subscales yields an EBS total score (α = .90).  The participants who took these measures are 52% women; 83% Americans; and had a mean age of 40.0 (SD = 15.9) (all the data reported in the table below had similar demographics).

Moral Beauty and Politics

I anticipated a substantial relationship between political ideology and engagement with beauty because previous studies with the Big 5 showed openness predicts both political liberalism and appreciation of beauty. However, the data with a 7-point political ideology scale (1 = very liberal; 7 = very conservative) showed a very low correlation with the moral beauty subscale: -.05 (n = 4,672, p < .001).  The negative sign on the .05 indicates a slight liberal leaning for engaging with moral beauty, but primarily it shows that being engaged by the moral beauty of others is unrelated to political ideology. As an aside, the EBS engagement with natural beauty subscale x political ideology had a r = -.10 (p < .001) and the EBS engagement with artistic beauty subscale x political ideology had a r = -.19 (p < .001).

Moral Beauty and Gender

Women (N = 2,299) scored higher (M = 33.9; SD = 7.2) than men (N = 2,397; M = 30.6; SD = 8.3) on the EBS moral beauty subscale; t(4694) = 14.37, p < .001, d = .42; and in fact scored higher on the engagement with natural and artistic beauty subscales as well.  This aligns with Haidt and Keltner’s brief review of gender issues in their chapter on appreciation of beauty and excellence in Character Strengths and Virtues; it also reinforces a previous study I’ve done with the EBS which also found women scoring somewhat higher than men. That men tend to score lower on engagement with beauty than women may lend some empirical support to Wendy Steiner’s assertion, in her Venus in Exile. The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art, that artists and academics of the 20th century denigrated the classic feminine qualities of sympathy, empathy, and love that are associated with beauty in favor of the power and horror of a masculine sublime.

Because of the substantial gender difference (d = .42) on the EBS moral beauty subscale I partialled out gender in regard to correlations with a variety of relevant measures – see the table below.

What predicts engaging with moral beauty?

Scale Correlation with Moral Beauty Engagement After partialling out gender
Moral Foundations  Questionnaire  (n = 4,730)
Harm .36 ** .30 **
Fairness .20 ** .18 **
Authority .07 ** .09 **
Ingoup .10 ** .12 **
Purity .15 ** .16 **
Big 5 (n = 3,495)
Agreeableness .35 ** .34 **
Openness .17 ** .18 **
Extraversion .19 ** .18 **
Neuroticism .01 -.01
Conscientiousness .07 ** .05 *
IRI (n = 1,433)
Empathic Concern .59 ** .57 **
Perspective Taking .35 ** .33 **
Fantasy .32 ** .29 **
Personal Distress .02 -.01
Schwartz Values (n = 2,594)
Universalism .34 ** .32 **
Benevolence .44 ** .42 **
Self-Direction .08 ** .07 **
Stimulation .08 ** .09 **
Tradition .19 ** .21 **
Conformity .19 ** .20 **
Security .17 ** .17 **
Power -.07 ** -.05 *
Achievement .05 * .05 *
Hedonism -.07 ** -.06 *
Spirituality .41 ** .41 **
Heartland Forgiveness (n = 84)
Forgive Self .16 .13
Forgive others .51 ** .50 **
Forgive Situations .37 ** .36 **
Total Forgiveness score .44 ** .43 **
GQ-6 Gratitude (n = 1,006) .42 ** .41 **
Scales that were not substantial predictors
Satisfaction with Life (n = 2,291) .14 ** .12 **
Disgust Scale-Revised (n = 4,464) .05 * .06 **

Note: *p<.01, **p<.001; n indicates the number of participants in the partial correlation analysis.


As can be seen in the table above, partialling out gender had very little influence on the various relationships that engaging with moral beauty has with a variety variables. Being engaged by moral beauty predicts being concerned about caring for and preventing harm to others; being agreeable across situations; valuing universalism, benevolence, and spirituality; being grateful for the small and large bounties in life; and being forgiving of and having empathy for others.

Feel free to complete an EBS at and see your score.  Also, to access a copy of the EBS and related papers, see

–Rhett Diessner

Posted in big 5, empathy, liberals, moral emotions, moral foundations, moral psychology, openness to experience, positive psychology, yourmorals.org3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Moral Beauty, Politics, Gender, and Personality”

  1. Ravi Iyer says:

    Interesting Rhett…thanks for doing that analysis. I really like your construct. I tend to think of engagement with beauty as a part of the Behavioral Attraction System (BAS – Carver & White), which we have a measure of in our dataset. It might be interesting to see where it converges and differs with the BIS/BAS constructs.

    Also have you done any work on engagement with natural beauty and environmental attitudes? There is likely to be stuff in the dataset on that too. I’m a city dweller who isn’t that environmental, but the few times people take me out to nature definitely make a difference in my political attitudes as well.

    best wishes….Ravi

  2. Rhett Diessner says:

    Thanks for the kind words Ravi, and also thanks for the heads up on BIS/BAS. I noticed there were BIS/BAS data, but I wasn’t familiar with the measure. However, I have just ordered a copy of Carver & White (1994), and will read it, and then look at EBS x BIS/BAS relationships. I appreciate you bringing my attention to that.

    A couple years ago I did start looking into the work done by environmental psychologists and beauty in the natural world, and I planned to pursue that further… but I haven’t yet. My starting point for that is Kant stating that a love of natural beauty is the “mark of a good soul,” but a he thought that love of artistic beauty was definitely 2nd order (along the lines of Plato accusing artists of making copies of copies).

    There are some hints in the research literature that exposure to natural beauty decreases depression and increases positive emotions, but I have not found a solid paper demonstrating that effect — there is a lot of anecdotal evidence, including my own personal experience …

    may your inner life be full of beauty,

  3. Ravi — Thanks for suggesting I compare engagement with beauty (EBS) with the BIS/BAS scales of Carver & White (1994). The correlation pattern is quite distinctive: behavior inhibition system, behavioral activation system-drive, and behavioral activation system-fun seeking, all had fairly low correlations with all of the Engagement with Beauty Scale (EBS) subscales. However, the behavioral activation system-reward had a moderately high correlation with all EBS subscales.
    Carver and White, based on Gray’s theory of brain function and behavior, designed their BIS/BAS scales to capture levels of aversive motivation (behavioral inhibition system) and appetitive motivation (behavioral activation/approach system). In Gray’s theory the BIS is sensitive to signals of punishment, nonreward, and novelty, and is responsible for feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and frustration. The BAS, on the other hand, is sensitive to signals of reward, nonpunishment, and escape from punishment; and is responsible for the feelings of happiness, hope, and elation. Carver and White have 3 BAS scales: the Drive scale indicates pursuit of desired goals, the Fun Seeking scale represents a desire for new rewards and a spontaneous approach to rewarding events, and the Reward Responsiveness scale indicates positive responses to the occurrence or anticipation of reward.
    So the interesting finding is that beauty, including moral beauty, may be a signal for anticipation of reward. This seems to find theoretical support in Alexander Nehamas’ argument that beauty is the “promise of happiness.”

    Correlations of Engagement with Beauty with BIS/BAS
    BIS BAS Drive BAS Fun Seeking BAS Reward
    Engagement with Moral Beauty .14*** .13*** .06* .38***
    Engagement with Natural Beauty -.007 .06* .18*** .35***
    Engagement with Artistic Beauty .08* .07* .15*** .31***
    EBS total score .10** .12*** .15*** .44***
    * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001; N = 1,038

    looking for beauty in all the right places,

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