Some Curious Facts About Morality
Morality comprises the set of principles and norms that establish what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for a certain group. It’s a constant in human society, regardless of the specific time or place. Moreover, although morality is dynamic, there are some values that seem to be present at all times and in all cultures. For example, justice, honesty, courage, respect, and generosity, among others. Basically, all these virtues are considered valuable, no matter what society we might be talking about.
Western morality also takes the matter of intention into account. For instance, a supposed good deed done with ulterior motives has little value. On the other hand, an apparently reprehensible act, but carried out by accident, means the matter is less serious. Many non-Western cultures don’t consider intention to be valid at all.
“ With morality, we correct the mistakes of our instincts, and with love we correct the mistakes of our morals .”
-José Ortega y Gasset-
Some curious facts about morality
In terms of morality, the old maxim could be said to apply: “Tell me what you brag about and I’ll tell you what you lack.” This was confirmed in a study conducted by Dr. S.J Reynolds which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. He conducted the research with 230 postgraduate students, who he asked to morally define themselves. Afterward, their behavior was closely monitored.
The results reinforced the hypothesis that all those who rated themselves as ‘good people’ or with ‘high morals’ were also those most likely to cheat in exams. However, this didn’t concern them, since they believed that other moral acts on their part exempted them from these minor faults.
It seems that something similar happens with some people with strong religious convictions. An investigation conducted by scientists from the United States and Canada found that there were no significant differences between the moral behavior of believers and that of agnostics. The only significant contrast was the fact that religious people felt more guilt and remorse when they did wrong.
A study on the origin of morality
For a long time, philosophers and scientists have wondered if morality is something innate or learned. Indeed, many doubts still remain. Throughout history, in all the cultures of the world, societies have established punishments for those who behave in a way that harms one of the members of a group.
To investigate this matter, Dr. Yasuhiro Kanakogi, from Osaka University (Japan), conducted research with eight-month-old babies. The question was whether, at that early age, they already exhibited some signs of moral behavior.
The research team familiarized the babies with a computer system that showed them cartoon figures. If the babies stared at any of the characters, they were destroyed. Once the children understood how it worked, they were presented with images of characters hurting others.
The results were surprising. In fact, all the babies used their ‘power’ to eliminate the antisocial character. The results of the study indicated that morality, or a good part of it, is the product of human evolution. Therefore, it could be said to be innately present in man.
Morality in animals
Another question that intrigues many people is whether non-human animals have morals. The question tends to arise because, on a daily basis, particularly in the case of pets, certain behaviors occur that seem to suggest a distinction between good and evil that goes beyond instinct.
Two recent and interesting books that address this topic are Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands and Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce. Both mention cases such as that of a lion protecting a baby, or chimpanzees that punish those who take food from their peers.
Reference is also made to rhesus monkeys who refused to give an electric shock to their peers even when they were hungry and would’ve expected to receive food in return for doing so. Then, there are dogs who risk their lives to save other canines. In fact, although there are no definitive conclusions in this regard, research does seem to suggest that non-human animals do possess a sense of morality.It might interest you...
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- Kanakogi, Y., Miyazaki, M., Takahashi, H., Yamamoto, H., Kobayashi, T., & Hiraki, K. (2022). Third-party punishment by preverbal infants. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-9.
- Reynolds, S. J., & Ceranic, T. L. (2007). The effects of moral judgment and moral identity on moral behavior: an empirical examination of the moral individual. Journal of applied psychology, 92(6), 1610.
- Weinberg, L. (2007). El ensayo latinoamericano entre la forma de la moral y la moral de la forma. Cuadernos del CILHA, 8(9), 110-130.
- Wisneski, D. C., Lytle, B. L., & Skitka, L. J. (2009). Gut reactions: Moral conviction, religiosity, and trust in authority. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1059-1063.