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8.1: Morality and Moral Development

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  • Mores, Laws, Morality and Ethics

    How are we to behave toward one another?  Morality is a social phenomenon.  Think about this. If a person is alone on some deserted island would anything that person did be moral or immoral? That person may do things that increase or decrease the chance for survival or rescue but would those acts be moral or immoral? Most of what we are concerned with in ethics is related to the situation in which humans are living with others. Humans are social animals. Society contributes to making humans what they are. For humans there arises the question of how are humans to behave toward one another.

    • What are the rules to be? 
    • How are we to learn of them? 
    • Why do we need them?

    Why be moral?

    Consider what the world would be like if there were no traffic rules at all.  Would people be able to travel by automobiles, buses and other vehicles on the roadways if there were no traffic regulations?  The answer should be obvious to all rational members of the human species.  Without basic rules, no matter how much some would like to avoid them or break them, there would be chaos. The fact that some people break the rules is quite clearly and obviously not sufficient to do away with the rules. The rules are needed for transportation to take place.

    Why are moral rules needed?  For example, why do humans need rules about keeping promises, telling the truth and private property?  This answer should be fairly obvious.  Without such rules people would not be able to live among other humans.  People could not make plans, could not leave their belongings behind them wherever they went.  We would not know who to trust and what to expect from others.  Civilized, social life would not be possible.  So, the question is:   Why should humans care about being moral? 


    1. Sociological  
      1. Without morality social life is nearly impossible.
      2. Reputation 
      3. Social censure
    2. Psychological
      1. People care about what others think of them. 
    3. Conscience
      1. Some people care about doing the right thing. 
    4. Theological
      1. Some people care about what will happen after death, to their soul or spirit.
      2. For many religions there is an afterlife that involves a person’s being rewarded or punished for what they have done.

    So, that is out of the way. We know that we should be moral and so should others, without some sense of morality it would be very difficult if not impossible for large numbers of humans to be living with one another.  Now to the questions that deal with the rules of morality and all the rules which govern human behavior.  First, some terms need to be clarified

    • Etiquette – rules of conduct concerning matters of relatively minor importance but which do contribute to the quality of life.  Violations of such rules may bring social censure.  Etiquette deals with rules concerning dress and table manners and deal with politeness.  Violations would bring denunciations for being, rude or crude or gross.  Friendships would not likely break up over violations of these rules as they would for violating rules of morality, e.g., lies and broken promises!  These rules are not just “made up by a bunch of old British broads” as one student once volunteered in class.  But they are made up by people to encourage a better life.  In each society there are authorities on these matters and there are collections of such rules.  Many books are sold each year to prospective brides who want to observe the proper rules of decorum and etiquette.  There are newspapers that have regular features with questions and answers concerning these matters.
      • This deals with matters such as when do you place the napkin on your lap when you sit at a dining table? 
      • How long do you wait on hold on a telephone call with someone with call waiting?
      • Should you use a cell phone at the dining table? 
      • Should you have a cell phone on in class? 
      • In a movie theater?
    • Mores- customs and rules of conduct
      • Morality- rules of right conduct concerning matters of greater importance.  Violations of such can bring disturbance to individual conscience and social sanctions.
      • Law- rules which are enforced by society.  Violations may bring a loss of or reduction in freedom and possessions.

    What is the relation of law to morality?  They are not the same.  You can't equate the two.  Just because something is immoral does not make it illegal and just because something is illegal it does not make it immoral.

    Things that are illegal but are thought to be moral (for many).

    • Drinking under age.
    • Driving over the speed limit.
    • Smoking marijuana.
    • Cheating on a tax return.
    • Splitting a cable signal to send it to more than one television.

      People do not think of themselves or of others as being immoral for breaking these laws.

    Things that are immoral (for many) but are not illegal.

    • Cheating on your spouse.
    • Breaking a promise to a friend.
    • Using abortion as a birth control measure.

    What is the relation of morality to law?  Well, when enough people think that something is immoral they will work to have a law that will forbid it and punish those that do it.  When enough people think that something is moral, they will work to have a law that forbids it and punishes those that do it repealed or, in other words, if there is a law that says doing X is wrong and illegal and enough people no longer agree with that then those people will work to change that law. such as the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

    • Moral Philosophy is a discipline that seeks to understand and to justify moral principles
      • A person is moral if that person follows the moral rules.
      • A person is immoral if that person breaks the moral rules.  
      • A person is amoral if that person does not know about or care about the moral rules.
    • Ethics is a discipline created to establish principles of the good and those of right behavior.
      • Ethics deals with the basic principles that serve as the basis for moral rules. 
      • Different principles will produce different rules.
        • A person is ethical if that person is aware of the basic principles governing moral conduct and acts in a manner consistent with those principles. 
        • If the person does not do so they are unethical.
    • Meta Ethics - is a discussion of ethical theories and language

     So, ethics and morality are not the same things.

    Morality vs. Ethics

    People often think and many claim that morality is dependent on religion. Some claim religious morality is superior to secular morality. Some refer to the nearly universal association of morality with religion on planet Earth as evidence in support of their claims. This is backwards. Research is showing that morality is linked with and dependent upon both physical structures and functioning of the brain and on cultural inheritances.

    Morality Results From Both Genes and Memes

    Neuroscience is finding the brain structures and functioning that make for the "ethical brain".  How is this so?  Humans are social animals and as Aristotle put it zoon politikon.  As such they have evolved in part due to a capacity to relate to others and have empathy and sympathy for others that serves as the base for acceptance of basic rules of conduct needed to live with others in relative peace sufficient to support social or group life and then the advantages of social life.  Evolutionary Psychology is finding/hypothesizing the evolution of moral notions as an expression of hard-wiring in the brain. The brain appears to have structures evolved and passed on through our genetic makeup (genes) that provide for empathy and sympathy for the social species of Homo Sapiens.  Morality is a result of an expression of those operations. Particular moral expressions or rules are enunciated and passed on as cultural inheritances and thus memes.

    The Primatologist, Frans de Waal, was one of many who have argued that the roots of human morality lie in social animals such as the primates, including apes and monkeys. The feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are necessary for the behaviors needed to make any mammalian group exist as individuals living in the midst of others. This set of feelings and expectations of reciprocity may be taken as the basis for human morality. Neuroscientists are locating that sense in mirror neurons in the brain.

    Morality is as firmly grounded in Neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters; honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals.

    Everywhere humans are found and where evidence exists of human culture there is evidence of a sense of morality.  While the particular moral rules may not be the same there is significant similarities and a commonalities in purposes served by moral codes. Morality is needed for human community and humans demonstrate this worldwide. There is evidence that all societies have morality. Is this because they could not exist without some sense of how we are to behave? Human beings are social beings, they have language which is a social creation.  Humans could not live in groups without some sort of sense of how to behave in ways that enhance the survival of the group, hence sympathy and empathy are needed and they are part of the basis for morality--a "moral sense".

    There is now the study of Evolutionary Ethics which claims that the moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilized races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality.

    Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.

    Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory”, “permissible” or “forbidden.”

    1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.
    2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.
    3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

    If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test []. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs.  When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that cannot account for the differences in play.  Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

    These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

    Neuroethics and the Trolley Dilemma

    Research in Neuroscience has proceeded so far as to call into discussion how humans are responsible for their actions and the degree to which all ethical thinking or morality is merely post facto rationalizations for the near automatic responses made to situations by the brain. Morality may be rooted deep in the evolved workings of human brains with its mirror neurons and the operation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

    However, if you reflect a moment on the question of how people become moral (genes for brain structures and functioning) and how they then acquire the exact moral precepts or rules (menes-moral codes and ethical principles) by which they live you will probably realize that a number of factors come into play in the development of personal morality.  Indeed you will probably think that people become moral or learn about morality due to their involvement with:

    • Parents
    • Siblings
    • Friends
    • School
    • Religion
    • Media- television, films, videos, music, music videos
    • Advertising

    How exactly each person develops their ideas about right and wrong is a subject being studied by psychologists. This type of study is part of what is known as Moral Psychology.  One of the most famous of the psychologists who does such studies is Lawrence Kohlberg.  He has a theory of moral development based upon his research with people from very young ages through the adult years.

     Stages of moral development 

    1. Pre-conventional: concern for self
      1. Reward / Punishment
      2. Reciprocity
    2. Conventional: concern for self and others
      1. Ideal Model -Conformity
      2. Law and Order
    3. Post Conventional: concern for others
      1. Social Contract
      2. Universal Principles

    Heinz Dilemma

    Kohlberg used scenarios to elicit responses from his subjects concerning their thinking about what makes an act right or wrong. He was less concerned with their answer as to what they would do or approve of in others as he was interested in their reason for thinking as they did.  Here is a simplification of his famous Heinz Scenario: How would you solve the following scenario which Kohlberg used on his research subjects? 

    • A man named Heinz had a dying wife. The wife had an almost fatal disease. The local druggist owned a $20,000 drug that could save her. Heinz could not raise the money in time and he certainly did not have the cash to buy the drug. Heinz therefore made a decision and that night he broke into the drug store and stole some of the medication.

    Should Heinz have done that? Why do you think that?

    Kohlberg thought that fewer than 25% of people ever progress beyond the fourth stage and do so because of some event that presses them to develop further. Events can force a person to move further. The decision to have an abortion, to resist the draft, or to assist your mother lying on her death bed to die quickly with less pain and suffering, are the sorts of events for which individuals must come to face to with to understand what it is that makes an action right or wrong.  It is at those times and through those types of events that individuals come to learn what their values are, who they are, and what their moral rules will be.  Consulting with friends and religious advisors about such matters will bring advice but leave still leaves the decision-making about the rules and the actions to the individual.