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BIOUNCERTAINTY - ERC Starting Grant no. 805498

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The Moral Psychology of Social Comparison: Nature and Normativity

The Moral Psychology of Social Comparison: Nature and Normativity

The research project "The Moral Psychology of Social Comparison: Nature and Normativity" was funded by the POLONEZ BIS 3 competition, co-financed by the European Commission and the National Science Center under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND grant.

Basic information

Popular description

The Moral Psychology of Social Comparison (MPSC) is a pioneering research project that offers a systematic analysis of the phenomenon of social comparison (SC) in moral psychology. By SC I understand the human propensity and practice of evaluating oneself (values, skills, behaviors) in relation to other people. MPSC has 2 parts that correspond to 2 project goals. Each part will be completed within the period of 1 year.

Part 1 (The Nature of SC) defines SC by determining the kinds of attitudes, dispositions, and the environmental conditions that facilitate SC. Here I ask two key questions: 1a) What is SC and what does it consist of? 1b) Why do we compare ourselves with others? Whereas contemporary literature on SC is scarce, I identify important philosophical resources on SC in David Hume, Adam Smith, and Soren Kierkegaard. These modern thinkers offer rich, yet still unexplored resources on the individual and social, cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of SC that require further reconstructive and critical investigation and systematic analysis. My analysis of a development of thinking about comparison from Hume to Smith to Kierkegaard helps me define SC referring to attitudes and dispositions toward, and acts of comparing oneself with others. These classical modern thinkers provide important perspectives on what SC is and why we engage in SC (to produce in ourselves feelings of elevation and to fit in by acquiring socially approved values). This distinguishes SC from “comparison” understood as aiming at recognition of differences essential to making informed judgments.

Part 2 (The Normativity of SC) investigates the normativity of SC in moral psychology in relation to 2 key questions: 2a) Are SC attitudes and dispositions virtuous or vicious, praiseworthy or blameworthy? 2b) Are there conditions under which SC attitudes and dispositions are morally neutral? The primary normative framework adopted for this investigation is virtue ethics that examines the dispositional/attitudinal and habitual character of SC. Distinguishing between upward and downward SC, I will be testing the hypothesis that while both types of SC are harmful to us, especially downward SC is a moral vice because we engage it in order to produce in ourselves misleading revitalizing feelings of well-being. In contrast to upward comparison that in principle aims at enhancing some aspects of one’s self, downward SC aims at avoiding negative thoughts about one’s self. However, both forms of SC produce in us negative feelings and dispositions such as envy and contempt. Drawing on the distinctions between attitudes that are cognitive and non-cognitive, but also implicit and explicit, I will be testing the hypothesis that SC is blameworthy in a weak sense because, despite being a vice, it is largely non-cognitive and habitual, hence it only partially responds to our agency.

In Part 1 I primarily engage the history of philosophy and history of ideas to trace a shift in thinking about comparison from a method of philosophical inquiry to SC as a subject of moral psychology. Mapping this shift and paying attention to its socio-historical-philosophical background will help me define SC together with other relative concepts crucial to a multifaceted rendering of SC (imitation, sympathy, affect).

Part 2 will use virtue ethics to examine the dispositional/attitudinal and habitual character of SC. I understand SC attitudes vis-à-vis dispositions as human intrinsic tendency (both cognitive and affective) to orient themselves toward other people and values they hold or represent.

The interdisciplinary part will consult a growing body of literature on social comparison in psychology and sociology. I will integrate into my framework a distinction of the horizontal comparison and vertical comparison developed in social psychology. I will also relate the conceptual-philosophical work developed in this project in order to explain "why" SC highly correlates with lower scoring on numerous indicators of well-being.

This trailblazing philosophical research on SC, MPSC not only addresses the study gap in moral psychology, but it opens new avenues for other possible explorations of SC in philosophy more broadly and generate new vistas for interdisciplinary research that will dialogue with psychology, sociology, and studies of human behavior.

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Source of funding

This research is part of the project No. 2022/47/P/HS1/01942 within the POLONEZ BIS programme co-funded by the National Science Centre and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 945339. 

Acronym: MPSC

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"The Vice of Social Comparison in Kierkegaard: Nature, Religious Moral Psychology, and Normativity" in the journal Religions

This paper argues for the thesis that social comparison is, for Kierkegaard, a vice. The first part of this article reconstructs Kierkegaard’s understanding of the nature of social comparison. Here, I bring attention to his anthropological but also political and sociological observations that pertain to social comparison and its links to modernity. The second part reconstructs the moral psychological account of social comparison in Kierkegaard, drawing on some of the available secondary literature. I complement Kierkegaard’s consideration of social comparison in relation to worry and humility with his account of the non-cognitive aspects of its operationality. The third part demonstrates that social comparison is a vice. Therein, drawing on the previous sections of this article, I identify Kierkegaard’s naturalistic argument engaged to present social comparison as a non-moral and non-religious vice (functionalism), pointing toward its intermeshing with the moral religious.

Kaftanski, W. (2023). The Vice of Social Comparison in Kierkegaard: Nature, Religious Moral Psychology, and NormativityReligions, 14(11).

The book "Kierkegaardian Phenomenologies" co-edited by Wojciech Kaftański

Monograph published by Rowman and Littlefield

edited by J. Aaron Simmons; Jeffrey Hanson and Wojciech Kaftański - contributions by Chris Boesel; Amber BOowen; Steven Delay; Jeffrey Hanson; Eleanor Helms; Joaquim Hernandez-Dispaux; Wojciech Kaftański; Sharon Kkrishek; Thomas J. Millay; Rene Rosfort; J. Aaron Simmons and Merold Westphal

Kierkegaardian Phenomenologies, edited by J. Aaron Simmons, Jeffrey Hanson, and Wojciech Kaftanski, offers a substantive, diverse, and timely consideration of phenomenological engagements within the thought of Søren Kierkegaard. Featuring original essays from a distinguished collection of established and emerging global scholars representing different schools of thought, this volume explains how the interest in a phenomenological reading of Kierkegaard is not only vital, but continues to grow in importance by cultivating new readers and inviting old readers to revisit their views. Divided into four parts—"Phenomenological Explorations", "On Hearing and Seeing", "Rethinking Faith and Despair", and "Kierkegaard and New Phenomenology"—this collection not only reflects the current state of scholarly conversations in both Kierkegaardian studies and phenomenological research, but also envisions new directions in which they should go, exploring ways that a Kierkegaardian approach to phenomenology might help us to re-envision Kierkegaard scholarship and re-enliven phenomenological philosophy.

Link to monograph

The Moral Psychology of Social Comparison: Insights from Hume and Kierkegaard

Online lecture at El Colegio de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juan, Mexico City, Mexico, March 1, 2024

Podcast on child and adolescent mental health

Episode title: Dr. Wojciech Kaftanski: About research, social media, and taking care of your own well-being

Link to podcast:

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Recent publications

New book co-edited by Wojciech Kaftański

New book co-edited by Wojciech Kaftański

Kierkegaardian Phenomenologies - a new book, co-edited by Wojciech Kaftański, a postdoctoral fellow at INCET, was published by Rowman and Littlefield.
Read More o New book co-edited by Wojciech Kaftański
New paper by Wojciech Kaftański

New paper by Wojciech Kaftański

Wojciech Kaftański published a new article: "The Vice of Social Comparison in Kierkegaard: Nature, Religious Moral Psychology, and Normativity” in Religions.
Read More o New paper by Wojciech Kaftański