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Is Our Morality Really Universal?
Picture a world where various nations have varied preferences for penalising or permitting certain activities, and where each country’s moral code is as distinctive as its citizens. Policymaking to address ethical issues like international corporate ethics, war, or even artificial intelligence would be an uphill battle in such a setting. If every nation insisted on imposing its own moral standards on international policymaking, regardless of how they clashed with those of other cultures, discussions would go on forever.
But is this fantastical setting where moral standards vary so drastically from our own? Is it possible that human morality is guided by universal cognitive or emotional processes? Conversely, do moral standards vary from one society to another? Are we, cultural differences aside, so morally incompatible that discussions on international ethical norms are bound to fail?
In a recent study, I gathered a large group of researchers from the Psychological Science Accelerator network to tackle these very issues. The journal Nature Human Behaviour featured our study.
Difficulties with Utilitarianism and Deontology
When determining whether or whether an action is moral, individuals might go to one of two basic philosophical perspectives. The first is called utilitarianism, and it maintains that outcomes are paramount in determining whether or not an action is moral. Utilitarianism, to put it simply, asserts that the primary criteria for determining the morality of an activity should be the extent to which it reduces damage. Contrarily, “deontology” contends that we need to base our decisions and actions on respect for the rights and responsibilities of individuals first and foremost. As an example of the divergence between these two points of view, think of the trolley problem:
Five railroad workers are being chased along a track by an empty runaway trolley. The runaway trolley and the five employees are separated by a footbridge over the rails. Another railroad worker, Fred, may be seen here on the bridge, carrying a big rucksack. The five employees’ lives will be lost if the trolley is allowed to continue down the main rails. These five fatalities can be prevented, however: Joe, a random onlooker, is standing just behind Fred on the footbridge, and he immediately grasps the gravity of the situation. He decides to save the lives of the five employees by shoving Fred, who is carrying a large rucksack, over the footbridge and into the rails below. Fred and his bag will absorb enough of the impact to stop the trolley, sparing the lives of five people on the street below. But the crash will definitely end Fred’s life.
In the trolley dilemma, the “utilitarian” solution, which involves pushing the individual over the bridge, results in the greatest number of lives saved. The “deontological” answer, on the other hand, argues that people should always adhere to the principle of non-violence toward others. What influences people’s moral preferences in the trolley dilemma?
The seminal research conducted by Josh Greene and coworkers hints to the significance of context in moral decision making. That is, when individuals use their real physical force to conduct a damaging act, like shoving Fred in front of the trolley, and when the act is purposeful, people are more inclined to evaluate the act as wrong. These two requirements are met in the trolley dilemma. First, you’ll need to use your own strength to physically shove the guy over the footbridge. Only then can you rescue the folks below. Second, you also have to seek this man’s death, in the sense that, without his really being struck and killed by the trolley, you cannot rescue the others on the track. You must consider death as a necessity—without it, five lives would be lost. People are more likely to find the utilitarian action ethically acceptable in variants of the dilemma when it is not necessary to directly cause death.
To what extent do persons of diverse cultural backgrounds respond differently to similar contextual cues while making moral judgments about potentially harmful activities was our primary focus. For this, we presented participants from 45 nations all over the globe with several versions of the trolley dilemma, in which we varied the presence of physical force and intentionality of the acts. Since social emotions (such regret, humiliation, or guilt) are demonstrated to be universal across cultures, we hypothesised that the effects of physical force and intentionality on moral judgements would also be cross-cultural. However, we also anticipated certain cultural variances. It was believed that members of collectivistic societies would be more prone to and more profoundly affected by such feelings. As a result, we hypothesised that members of collectivistic societies would be more attuned to the implications of violence and malice. Such variations may provide light on the extent to which one’s upbringing shapes one’s moral views.
The Power of Force and Deliberate Action
The findings were crystal-clear. People of all nationalities and cultures agree that the use of purposeful, deliberate physical force makes an action less ethically acceptable. Cultural differences do not account for the universality of the results of using force or intent. Therefore, this aspect of moral judgement is driven by universal cognitive or emotional processes, making it cross-culturally applicable.
While the basis for these moral judgements may be consistent across cultures, we did find considerable variation at the national and individual levels. To further understand the causes of these discrepancies, we investigated the role of collectivism—the propensity to put the needs of the collective ahead of those of the individual—in shaping these evaluations. However, we did not find any influence of collectivism, and it would be an intriguing direction for future study to explore whether or whether cultural factors may account for some of the variation in these effects.
Thankfully, we don’t live in a world where civilizations are so far different from one another that they can’t come together to craft legislation based on shared ethical ideals. All we have to do is have the maturity to depend on our shared cultural values as the foundation for our global moral compass. In spite to popular belief, morality is independent of one’s country or cultural background.
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