How do we assess what is morally right? Do we jump to conclusions or do we rationalize our actions? Psychologists believe that we first use our gut feelings to say that something is moral and afterwards we rationalize our choices
By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
In the UK educationalists are worried that the new generation is lacking in character, which they believe will impinge on the moral calibre of the new generation. Psychologists were quick to understand that character is inborn, always under the influence of heredity, but amenable to educational teachings and other environmental factors. They would influence the behaviour of the individual, who could lean towards criminal activities or embrace tolerable social works. Character is said to have two facets (a) performance virtues — like grit, resilience, self control – which formal character education can influence, and (b) moral virtues – honesty, compassion and respect which, in some instances, can be a counterweight to the performance virtue of the criminal who also has grit and resilience. As to whether those character enhancement programs are efficient is still to be confirmed, and it will determine the moral standard of the individual.
Our Moral Standard
Our moral aptitude – the power to distinguish between what is right and wrong – could sound obvious to most of us, but we must not forget that the religious extremist who goes around with his explosives to decimate children and adults is convinced that he is right; that he is obeying a divine calling that promises him heaven at the final call. But to the onlooker who has escaped that horror it’s a traumatic inhuman experience. In 1972 a Uruguayan plane crashed at about 4000 metres in the Andes, while carrying a rugby football team.16, out of 45 people, survived after putting on a bold fight for some 70 days in the wilderness; some died of injuries, cold and starvation. The survivors had agreed among themselves that whoever died first could have his flesh eaten by his other own friends to survive. That’s how 16 of them indulged in cannibalism. The external world would say that it was better they had died than committing anthropophagy; but could we blame those survivors? Is not staying alive at all cost a noble pursuit?
Assuming that those youngsters were the last people to be alive on earth after a nuclear war, would we prefer them to die of starvation thereby bringing the Homo Sapiens race to disappear; or would posterity excuse their cannibalism – for saving the race from extinction ? Which would have been a better moral stance?
“All of the passengers were Roman Catholics. Some feared eternal damnation. It is said some rationalized the act of necrotic cannibalism as lent to the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. Others justified it according to a Bible verse found in John 15:13: No man hath greater love than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Some of us may still have doubts; is it moral to eat one’s own friends’ flesh?
Some 70 years ago did not the Nazi SS of Germany gas children and women in the gas chambers, and in the afternoon went home, kissed their wives, played with their children, drank tea, listened to Mozart – as if they had had a normal day’s work? For decades social scientists have been trying to sort out this contradiction in human behaviour, asking where were the moral standard of these SS men. The latter had their own reason to justify such behaviour. Even many of the last surviving butchers said that they would repeat the same thing yet again if they had to go through that war again, because they were convinced that the Jews and the rest of the world were against them since the First World War.
“Morality is a device for solving the social challenges… of everyday life, whereas the basic problems is to get otherwise selfish individuals to work together as a group and enjoy the benefits of cooperation”, stated Joshoua Greene, a neuroscientist at Harvard University.
From an evolutionary point of view morals are the offspring of millennia of tribal cooperation – the attempt to work for the common good of all those in the tribe – going to hunt together, to take responsibility of everyone in the tribe, to share the reward equally; it’s the origin of our moral attitude. And as we become more gregarious on a planetary scale, we inevitably have the coming together of many tribes, each one having its own conception of what constitutes wrong and right. The democratic person believing in individual freedom sees nothing wrong in homosexuality, but the religious believing in God sees homosexuality as abhorrent. From a gregarious animal we are becoming individualist. The concept of what constitutes moral is changing. This is the dilemma.
Mentally how do we assess what is morally right? Do we jump to conclusions or do we rationalize our actions? Psychologists believe that we first use our gut feelings to say that something is moral and afterwards we rationalize our choices. If we ask Americans whether they would use their national flag to clean their toilet vase, they would look immediately upon this as immoral. Why? They would find no valid justification for their choice.
Psychologists have asked volunteers to say whether it would be moral for them to push Mr A in front of a coming train so as to force it to stop, hence saving 5 persons found further down the track; all the volunteers recoil from such action; but they are ready to press a switch, to divert that train and kill Mr A further down that track in order to save those 5 people. On the spur of the moment we become moralistic, but we are ready to rationalize to make a more difficult choice – but still… that it is a moral action.
Joshoua Greene likened that scenario as taking photos automatically – equivalent to quick instant moral action, but devoid of fine tuning that comes with manual adjustment. We use our gut feelings for local individual moral actions, while the fact is that it is unsuited for problems cropping up in the wider world. Our gut feelings would be inadequate to judge climate change challenges, which will need our slow mental rational capacity to find the right moral solution to that universal problem. Catastrophic events affecting thousands of people recruits our slow process to feel and act for them.
Daniel Kahneman illustrates those two systems in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ – the fast thinking tract and the slow thinking one. They constitute our mental makeup that helps us to navigate through the difficulties of life. The first one is more emotional, automatic, immediate response to a problem in our surrounding, while the second system is a slow calculating system to rationalize our actions.
Do we act because of our empathy reaction to the suffering of others or do we also react to the feelings that the physical acts might elicit in us? A person is suffering from cancer, would we kill him by poisoning him, throttle him with a pillow or shoot him with a gun? We would recoil from such action; we would not like to jeopardize our moral feelings and standard.
Besides education to influence the young mind, is our future society going to use drugs like citalopram, group pressure, electric brain stimulation to improve human social behaviour and to propel people towards the right option? Where a petrol company wanted to exploit the land for fossil fuel, the people went around protesting – using their wall writings to make the company feel ashamed for polluting the atmosphere; similarly a whole town may go on protest, as Birmingham did two centuries ago, to launch the anti-slavery movement. Shame is one weapon that can be made use of to bring social groups, collective thinking, for concerted action to exert on larger powerful rich groups so as to enforce our moral values.
A vegetarian to be can be tempted automatically by a chicken burger, but showing him how animals are being butchered to make a burger can recruit the more rational part of his brain to dissuade him from eating the same.
Using drugs will target only a part of the brain, converting people into moral robots, while education may stimulate many parts of the brain for moral responsibility.
The impression is that our moral values are very relative; we use different frames of reference to define our moral standard. It will depend on the time, place and circumstances we have to reach a decision. Finally some of us would opt for the one and only option — that of being good to others, to ourselves and doing the least harm to others, as the final criteria to judge a moral standing, in spite of what traditions, culture or religion may say.
* Published in print edition on 22 February 2019