Morality as a basic psychological need

In a new book chapter, researchers Jayawickreme, Prentice & Fleeson (2020) describe preliminary evidence for morality as a basic psychological need. Below I will discuss some parts of this chapter. 

It is an old idea that morality is important 

The idea that morality is essential for human flourishing is old. For example, William James, one of the founders of psychology, noted as early as 1878, "The joy of moral self-approbation. . . [may be] required to make the notion of mere existence tolerable." 
But is the need for morality indeed a basic psychological need like the needs know from self-determination theory (SDT): the needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness (the so-called ARC needs)?

Arguments to think that morality is a basic need 

Jayawickreme et al. have four arguments for thinking that morality is a basic psychological need. Their first argument is that morality is a product of evolution and thus part of the inherent human nature. 
The second argument they make is that when judging others, we pay particular attention to their morality. 
Their third argument is that people internalize and want to comply with moral standards during their development. Related to this, people generally see their morality as the most essential part of their identity.

Previous research on morality 

Their fourth argument is based on empirical research conducted to date. The table below (from Prentice et al., 2019) summarizes this research. It shows that some of the criteria for basic needs (as formulated by Baumeister & Leary, 1995) have already been met and some not yet.

New research 

Prentice et al. conducted some additional studies that showed that people use morality as a criterion to identify peak experiences, that morality has affective consequences, and that morality is distinct from ARC needs. 
Prentice et al. (2020) conducted an experience sampling study that showed that satisfaction of the need for morality was associated with daily flourishing independent of ARC needs, and with and moral behavior.

SDT criteria for basic needs 

Jayawickreme et al. are also looking at to what extent the need for morality meets 6 criteria formulated by Ryan & Deci (2017). These criteria are: 1) essential for flourishing, 2) content-specific, 3) explanatory, 4) growth needs, 5) categorical suitability, 6) universality. 
They find that initial evidence indicates that the need for morality satisfies all of these requirements. (An extension of the Ryan & Deci criteria can be found in Vansteenkiste et al., 2020). They do point out that further research is needed.


Whether the need for morality will, at some point, be given the full status of a universal basic psychological need, I cannot foresee and dare not predict. Future research will tell. 
There are, however, serious indications that morality is important to people and is related to their well-being and functioning. Philosophers of thousands of years ago made this claim but never provided evidence. Interestingto see  that there is now more and more evidence for it.