Is Morality Natural?

Is Morality Natural?
Science is tracing the biological roots of our intuitive sense of what is right and what is wrong.
by Marc D. Hauser | September 12, 2008
On Jan. 2, 2007, a large woman entered the Cango caves of South Africa and wedged herself into the
only exit, trapping 22 tourists behind her. Digging her out appeared not to be an option, which left a
terrible moral dilemma: take the woman's life to free the 22, or leave her to die along with her fellow
tourists? It is a dilemma because it pushes us to decide between saving many and using someone else's
life as a means to this end.
A new science of morality is beginning to uncover how people in different cultures judge such dilemmas,
identifying the factors that influence judgment and the actions that follow. These studies suggest that
nature provides a universal moral grammar, designed to generate fast, intuitive and universally held
judgments of right and wrong.
Consider yourself a subject in an experiment on the Moral Sense Test (moral, a site
presenting dilemmas such as these: Would you drive your boat faster to save the lives of five drowning
people knowing that a person in your boat will fall off and drown? Would you fail to give a drug to a
terminally ill patient knowing that he will die without it but his organs could be used to save three other
patients? Would you suffocate your screaming baby if it would prevent enemy soldiers from finding and
killing you both, along with the eight others hiding out with you?
These are moral dilemmas because there are no clear-cut answers that obligate duty to one party over
the other. What is remarkable is that people with different backgrounds, including atheists and those of
faith, respond in the same way. Moreover, when asked why they make their decisions, most people are
clueless, but confident in their choices. In these cases, most people say that it is acceptable to speed up
the boat, but iffy to omit care to the patient. Although many people initially respond that it is
unthinkable to suffocate the baby, they later often say that it is permissible in that situation.
Why these patterns? Cases 1 and 3 require actions, case 2 the omission of an action. All three cases
result in a clear win in terms of lives saved: five, three and nine over one death. In cases 1 and 2, one
person is made worse off, whereas in case 3, the baby dies no matter what choice is made. In case 1, the
harm to the one arises as a side effect. The goal is to save five, not drop off and drown the one. In case
2, the goal is to end the life of the patient, as he is the means to saving three others.
Surprisingly, our emotions do not appear to have much effect on our judgments about right and wrong
in these moral dilemmas. A study of individuals with damage to an area of the brain that links decisionmaking and emotion found that when faced with a series of moral dilemmas, these patients generally
made the same moral judgments as most people. This suggests that emotions are not necessary for such
Our emotions do, however, have a great impact on our actions. How we judge what is right or wrong
may well be different from what we chose to do in a situation. For example, we may all agree that it is
morally permissible to kill one person in order to save the lives of many. When it comes to actually
taking someone's life, however, most of us would turn limp.
Another example of the role that emotions have on our actions comes from recent studies of
psychopaths. Take the villains portrayed by Heath Ledger and Javier Bardem, respectively, in "The Dark
Knight" and "No Country for Old Men." Do such psychopathic killers know right from wrong? New,
preliminary studies suggest that clinically diagnosed psychopaths do recognize right from wrong, as
evidenced by their responses to moral dilemmas. What is different is their behavior. While all of us can
become angry and have violent thoughts, our emotions typically restrain our violent tendencies. In
contrast, psychopaths are free of such emotional restraints. They act violently even though they know it
is wrong because they are without remorse, guilt or shame.
These studies suggest that nature handed us a moral grammar that fuels our intuitive judgments of right
and wrong. Emotions play their strongest role in influencing our actions—reinforcing acts of virtue and
punishing acts of vice. We generally do not commit wrong acts because we recognize that they are
wrong and because we do not want to pay the emotional price of doing something we perceive as
So, would you have killed the large woman stuck in the cave or allowed her to die with the others? If you
are like other subjects taking the moral sense test, you would say that it is permissible to take her life
because you don't make her worse off. But could you really do it? Fortunately, there was a simpler
solution: she was popped out with paraffin after 10 hours.
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