The Construction of Morals

59 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2013 Last revised: 27 May 2017

Daniel L. Chen

Toulouse School of Economics / Institute for Advanced Study / University of Toulouse; LWP, Harvard Law School, Harvard University

Susan Yeh

Charles River Associates (CRA)

Date Written: November 7, 2013


When do policies generate expressive or backlash effects? Recent economic models suggest that where a proscribed activity is prevalent, permissive laws liberalize attitudes toward partakers while increasing utility. The opposite occurs in communities where the proscribed activity is rare. To test these predictions, we randomize data entry workers to transcribe newspaper summaries of liberal or conservative court decisions about obscenity. We find that liberal obscenity decisions liberalize individual and perceived community standards and increase utility. Yet religious workers become more conservative in their values, identify as more Republican, view community standards as becoming more liberal, and report lower utility. Workers update beliefs about the prevalence of sexual activities differently in response to liberal or conservative decisions. These results provide causal evidence for the law having indirect social effects that may amplify or attenuate deterrence effects and suggest that legitimacy of law can affect utility and self-identification.

Keywords: obscenity law, belief updating, values, norms, health risk

JEL Classification: D83, K1, K42, Z1

Suggested Citation

Chen, Daniel L. and Yeh, Susan, The Construction of Morals (November 7, 2013). Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 104, 84-105, 2014 . Available at SSRN:

Daniel L. Chen

Toulouse School of Economics / Institute for Advanced Study / University of Toulouse ( email )

21 allée de Brienne
31015 Toulouse cedex 6 France
Toulouse, 31015

LWP, Harvard Law School, Harvard University ( email )

8 Mt. Auburn St., 1st Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Susan Yeh (Contact Author)

Charles River Associates (CRA) ( email )

1201 F. St. NW
Ste. 700
Washington, DC 20004
United States

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