Google+ Badge

Friday, March 5, 2010

Right And Wrong

Modern anthropological research has shown at every level of civilization a moral code has been created by people as an ideal of regulations of behavior that all should accept as "correct" and praise in speech and story. This code acknowledges the existence of the savage and the divine character of every single individual.

Romance, kindness and nursing exist as shining examples of good moral behavior, but, still, modern man is capable of unspeakable horrors such as those committed in Modgadishu, Rwanda, Baghdad, New York City, Oklahoma City, and even in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. The species is, at the same time, the highest and wisest while being the lowest and most cruel.

This paradox is well noted by Jeffrey Kluger ("What Makes Us Moral," Time Magazine, November 21, 2007). Kluger said, "The deeper that science drills into the substrata of behavior, the harder it becomes to preserve the vanity that we are unique among Earth's creatures."

Kluger continued, "What does, or ought to, separate us then is our highly developed sense of morality, a primal understanding of good and bad, of right and wrong, of what it means to suffer not only our own pain--something anything with a rudimentary nervous system can do--but also the pain of others. That quality is the distilled essence of what it means to be human. Why it's an essence that so often spoils, no one can say." 

Creating and Spoiling Moral Codes

The Universal Moral Code is a list of fundamental moral principles that can be found throughout the world. It was created by Dr. Kent M. Keith in 2003 while writing a book on morality and ethics. (Kent M. Keith, Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, 2003) Here is a list of the Code:


Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
Do not lie.
Do not steal.
Do not cheat.
Do not falsely accuse others.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not commit incest.
Do not physically or verbally abuse others.
Do not murder.
Do not destroy the natural environment upon which all life depends.


Do to others what you would like them to do to you.
Be honest and fair.
Be generous.
Be faithful to your family and friends.
Take care of your children when they are young.
Take care of your parents when they are old.
Take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.
Be kind to strangers.
Respect all life.
Protect the natural environment upon which all life depends.

Michael Schulman, co-author of Bringing Up a Moral Child, (with Eva Mekler, 1994) stated when someone resists bad doing in the face of another person in authority giving approval to commit the action, that person has demonstrated morality instead of mere social convention. Yet, Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of Moral Minds (2006), added that although moral judgment is pretty consistent... "Moral behavior, however, is scattered all over the chart." There seems to be a great difference between the rules people know and the rules people follow.

According to Hauser, "Morality is grounded in our biology ... Inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences, but a shared journey with the natural sciences.” But by “grounded in” he does not mean that facts about what is right and wrong can be inferred from facts about neurons.

Houser believes humans are born with certain abstract rules or principles to set parameters. Hauser sometimes calls the brain “a moral organ” and sometimes “a moral faculty.” This area of the brain is “a circuit, specialized for recognizing certain problems as morally relevant.” It incorporates “a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems.” (Mark D. Houser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, 2006)
Imagine debating the merits of a proposed change in what is told children about right and wrong. The neurobiologists intervene, explaining that the novel moral code will not compute. Hauser said, "We have, they tell us, run up against hard-wired limits: our neural layout permits us to formulate and commend the proposed change, but makes it impossible for us to adopt it. Surely our reaction to such an intervention would be, 'You might be right, but let’s try adopting it and see what happens; maybe our brains are a bit more flexible than you think.' It is hard to imagine our taking the biologists’ word as final on such matters, for that would amount to giving them a veto over Utopian moral initiatives." Hauser takes this to suggest “that moral rules consist of two ingredients: a prescriptive theory or body of knowledge about what one ought to do, and an anchoring set of emotions." (Richard Rorty, "Born To Be Good," New York Times: Book Review, August 27 2006)

Empathy seems to be the deepest emotional foundation for morality. This empathy is based mainly upon the understanding that "what hurts me would feel the same way to you." To do a favor for someone today, logically is followed by expectation of a return favor during some tomorrow. Any group of animals thrives on this empathy.

Yet up the ante for causing pain for others and the situations become much more complicated. Then, emotions play an even greater part in the moral code. A favorite scenario that morality researchers study is the trolley dilemma:

"You're standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people. There's a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose a single unsuspecting man was on the siding? Now the mortality score is 5 to 1. Could you kill him to save the others? What if the innocent man was on a bridge over the trolley and you had to push him onto the track to stop the train?

"Pose these dilemmas to people while they're in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), and the brain scans get messy. Using a switch to divert the train toward one person instead of five increases activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex--the place where cool, utilitarian choices are made. Complicate things with the idea of pushing the innocent victim, and the medial frontal cortex--an area associated with emotion--lights up. 

"As these two regions do battle, we may make irrational decisions. In a recent survey, 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley scenarios said they would not push the innocent man onto the tracks--even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death. "What's going on in our heads?" asks Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Why do we say it's O.K. to trade one life for five in one case and not others?" 

(Jeffrey Kluger,"What Makes Us Moral," Time Magazine, November 21, 2007)

Having moral programming (the code of proper behavior) does not mean someone will practice moral behavior. Like a computer operator, someone must still boot up and properly configure the software. Therein lies the duty of the community. Hauser concluded, "... all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar--the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. It's the people around us who do that teaching--often quite well." (Mark D. Houser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, 2006)

Long held tenets of morality still exist. Education in school, in the family, and in the church are held to be morally responsible. A sound public opinion in the state and nation is necessary for effective ethical modeling. Also, the greater part of a nation's legislation affects its morality. (G. Joyce, "Morality," The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)

"In the 21st century, we retain a powerful remnant of that primal dichotomy, which is what impels us to step in and help a mugging victim--or, in the astonishing case of Wesley Autrey, New York City's so-called Subway Samaritan, jump onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train to rescue a sick stranger--but allows us to decline to send a small contribution to help the people of Darfur. 'The idea that you can save the life of a stranger on the other side of the world by making a modest material sacrifice is not the kind of situation our social brains are prepared for,' says Greene."

(Jeffrey Kluger,"What Makes Us Moral," Time Magazine, November 21, 2007)
In France and some other places, laws now make it criminal for a passerby not to provide at least some aid. But, a state is not needed to create a moral code. Clubs, social groups and fraternities may expel undesirable members, and the U.S. military retains the threat of discharge as a disciplinary tool. Judging someone as "dishonorable" in the military is harsh punishment, often felt for life. In fact, affiliations often deeply influence the sense of right and wrong.

Usually the biggest challenges for people occur when they are called on to apply moral care to people outside of their family, community, or workplace. Homo sapiens have trouble with the notion of "other" when faced with the primary function of existence as nothing more than an effort to get as many of their genes as possible into the next generation. 

One Caucasian juvenile delinquent put this "other" concept so eloquently when he stated, "I wouldn't mug an old lady. That could be my grandmother." So, asked who he would mug instead, he calmly stated, "A Chinese delivery guy." Empathy for an alien? And, the line between insiders and outsiders is seen everywhere at every level of society.

The Morally Correct Behavior?

A moral code is absolutely necessary for the welfare of any society. How it is formed and the manner in which it should be strictly followed are debatable. Circumstance and environment certainly affect an individual caught in a moral dilemma. Ultimately, the individual must take a course of action. Sometimes, the actions are immoral in the eyes of others. Most immoral behavior must be punished in order for a code to be effective.

But, under what circumstances would we steal? If we were living in an oppressive society? If we came from a poor and starving background? If he were highly uneducated? Merely giving food to the child may be a momentary panacea, however, the situation must be studied from all sides in order for a long term answer to be found. And, who would deny the wavering effect of a code of ethics in certain, dire situations?

Post a Comment