Moral Psychology: Understanding Ethical Behavior 

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Is morality baked into our DNA or enforced by law or religion? Would humans act ethically if there was no punishment for immoral behavior?

The question of morality is a complicated one. In moral psychology, there are perspectives both in favor and against the good-naturedness of human beings.

Below, we’ll explore both sides of the argument and why the matter of morality is so pertinent in our day and age.

The Current State of Societal Morality

In the past hundred years, the world has changed dramatically. According to American political commentator and author (Thank You for Being Late) Thomas Friedman, there are three major forces shaping the world today: technology, globalization, and climate change. Accelerations in these three forces have two important implications for the state of societal morality:

1. Everyone Has Godlike Powers

Today, we have more free will than ever and almost everyone has access to godlike powers. For example, technology and globalization allow an individual to affect people all over the world, and humanity as a whole is changing the climate. Because everyone can be a god, people’s individual sense of right and wrong affects everyone—a single person can destroy the world, and a single person can make life better for everyone. 

2. Ungoverned Spaces

The acceleration of technology, in particular, has created new, digital spaces that are impossible for any religious institution, political leader, or individual to govern or enforce the use of morals. As a result, more spaces have the potential to be godless and lawless.

For example, the YouTube ads that run before videos are assigned by an algorithm, not by YouTube staff or the companies who buy the ads. As a result, no one actually knows where the ad will be placed unless she happens upon the video the algorithm selected. This algorithm has resulted in Aveeno, Secret, and Bud Light ads playing in advance of jihadi and ISIS videos. The algorithm had no human judgment to inform its selections.

The point is that technology doesn’t have morals, values, or principles, and there are some choices that technology shouldn’t be responsible for. Some work needs to be done by people. 

Does God Still Exist?

Today, views on God have to take into account the three accelerations, particularly technology. Depending on which view you subscribe to, there’s a different answer to whether or not God exists in cyberspace:

  • If you believe God actively punishes evil, then he isn’t in cyberspace, because cyberspace is full of evil—gambling, pop and rap music with filthy lyrics, and terrorist recruitment—and it hasn’t been struck down yet.
  • If you believe that good actions attract God, then God can be present in cyberspace if we act in a moral way and invite him in. 

TITLE: Thank You for Being Late
AUTHOR: Thomas L. Friedman
TIME: 47
READS: 44.3
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: thank-you-for-being-late-summary-thomas-l-friedman

Darwinian Morality

Moral psychology aims to understand what drives people to make the judgments they do about moral issues. One school of thought on the matter stems from Darwinism. 

Some claim that Darwinism cannot account for the existence of altruism, kindness, or empathy. They argue that the theory of natural selection threatens to undermine the very foundations of human morality. Darwinism, they claim, is purely about the survival of the fittest, and an organism concerned solely with its own survival cannot care about the health and wellbeing of others. They see the fact that humans do feel empathy and compassion as a glaring contradiction that Darwinism can’t explain.

But this view is based on a misunderstanding and gross caricature of Darwinist principles. Darwinism does not postulate a selfish “kill or be killed, eat or be eaten” view of human history. In fact, kindness and altruism have perfectly rational Darwinian roots. This is where Darwinian morality comes in.

Darwinism and Modern Morality

Early kin-based human communities would have strongly favored genetic tendencies toward altruism on the basis of both kin survival and reciprocity. We are thus bred to be altruistic and moral. 

It’s important to note that this does not make the love and compassion we feel toward our fellow human beings any less real or genuine. It simply provides a coherent explanation for our moral psychology—why we behave morally toward other human beings. Understanding Darwinism intellectually does not make anyone love their family and friends less, despite what creationists might claim. Darwinian morality is very real.

Indeed, our modern displays of love and affection might simply be misfirings of our normal evolutionary impulses.

For example, the desire for sex comes from a clear Darwinian impulse—to create offspring to pass along your genes. But we still experience lust and desire when there is no chance of procreation—as in same-sex relationships or when a heterosexual couple is using birth control. Sexual desire still exists independently of the original evolutionary impulses that explain it. This is all part of Darwinian moral psychology.

TITLE: The God Delusion
AUTHOR: Richard Dawkins
TIME: 32
READS: 59.8
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-god-delusion-summary-richard-dawkins

Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment

So, according to Darwinism, morality is baked into our DNA, but does this theory hold up in practice? Is there any evidence that human nature is inherently good and moral? What does science have to say on the matter?

The most noteworthy scientific study pertaining to human moral psychology is Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. This study is often cited as proof that humans are selfish and cruel by nature, but there are nuances that aren’t widely known.

In interviews and articles after the experiment, Zimbardo repeatedly claimed that this cruel behavior was entirely unscripted. He said that merely telling participants to be a guard had brought out their sadistic tendencies—the evil that supposedly hides in all of us.

However, when Zimbardo released the archive of the experiment, it became clear that he’d influenced the guards’ actions. Zimbardo met with the guards before the experiment began and told them to treat the prisoners with brutality. Due to Zimbardo’s interference, the experiment tells us very little about human moral psychology. 

Furthermore, a similar study conducted more recently, without unethical interference from the researchers, had the opposite result of the Stanford prison experiment. This was a 2002 reality TV show on the BBC called The Experiment, run by psychologists Alexander Haslam and Steven Reicher. Like Zimbardo, Haslam and Reicher divided participants into guards and prisoners. However, they didn’t give the guards any directives. By the end of the series, the prisoners and guards were sharing their food and playing games together, and they’d voted to create a commune. 

Circumstantial Morals

Zimbardo concluded that humans aren’t inherently bad. Evildoers are just ordinary people who find themselves in situations that cause them to disengage their normal sense of morality. Interviews have confirmed that many people who do great evil—terrorists, torturers, those who facilitate genocide—are otherwise psychologically healthy and rational. They’re just like any of us.

However, the theory of fixed morals (that humans are either born good or bad) is more attractive because it’s simpler—viewing people as either good or evil makes the world much easier to understand, even if it’s not true. 

We’re also hardwired to believe it because the human brain is biased against the theory of circumstantial morals. In psychology, the fundamental attribution error is when we apply the theory of fixed morals to the behavior of others (by blaming their immoral behavior on their character rather than the environment). 

Finally, we like to believe in fixed morals because it protects our ego by identifying evil as something separate from ourselves. It allows us to blame all of the world’s evil on the few villains and criminals who are directly involved in it. On the other hand, if we embrace that morals are circumstantial, we may have to accept responsibility for creating or prolonging the circumstances that influence people to do evil.

This is not to say that circumstances could excuse evil—he still believes that we should hold people accountable for their harmful actions. However, it should influence us to punish them less severely. We should also extend justice to those responsible for creating the broader circumstances in which evil took place. In other words, Zimbardo asserts that we can more accurately identify the source of evil and prevent it by overcoming the fundamental attribution error.

TITLE: The Lucifer Effect
AUTHOR: Philip Zimbardo
TIME: 14
READS: 35.9
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-lucifer-effect-summary-philip-zimbardo

Moral Behavior Depends on Expectations

If humans are fundamentally good, why do people behave immorally? 

According to Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman, people are inherently good, but their moral behavior also depends on expectations. If we expect people to be selfish, they’ll act selfishly. However, the opposite holds as well: If we see humans as fundamentally decent creatures, we’ll treat each other with respect, trust, and dignity, which will encourage others to be kinder and more compassionate in turn.

Research suggests that expectations have a significant impact on behavior. For example, if a parent consistently tells their child that the child is unathletic, then the child will start to believe it. She might avoid playing sports with other children. If she does play, she’ll see every failure as proof that she’s unathletic, instead of as an opportunity to improve. She, therefore, enters a negative feedback loop.

Bregman maintains that, while it may sound idealistic, evidence from prisons, corporations, and politics shows that these positive feedback loops create better results in the real world. 

TITLE: Humankind
AUTHOR: Rutger Bregman
TIME: 19
READS: 40.1
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: humankind-summary-rutger-bregman

Final Words

Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members to behave. Moral codes look superficially different between societies and across history, but human moral psychology is largely universal. 

At its heart, human nature is inherently good and moral because morality has survival value. However, even the most good-natured person could commit the worst evil imaginable if they found themselves in the wrong situation. Furthermore, moral behavior is influenced by expectations—if people are expected to observe a moral code, they’ll likely will. 

If you enjoyed our article about moral psychology, check out the following suggestions for further reading: 

The Righteous Mind

In The Righteous Mind, Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why people around the world, including liberals and conservatives in the United States, have different moral frameworks. He argues that moral judgments are emotional, not logical—they are based on stories rather than reason. Consequently, liberals and conservatives lack a common language, and reason-based arguments about morality are ineffective. This leads to political polarization.

Nicomachean Ethics

What’s the best possible way to live our lives? How can we be happy? These are some of the questions that ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle discusses in his Nicomachean Ethics. He argues that the best and happiest life consists of the rational pursuit of virtue. He explains the different kinds of virtues, how to become virtuous, and the greatest virtue of all: wisdom.

Moral Psychology: Understanding Ethical Behavior 

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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