Note: Click here for my glowing review of One Day University and to read some amazing facts and tidbits. I’m not nearly as pleased with my second visit.
One Day U. again came to New York City. This time, however, I regrettably heard one professor bash the Obama administration for an hour (he was supposed to be discussing how we can predict future wars), a neuroscientist talk about how an fMRI machine works (rather than lecture on the actual title of the session which suggested how human behavior is dictated by biological processes) and an Economics professor cover how China’s rise as an economic power effects virtually everything *.
Needless to say I was disappointed and considered demanding a refund to no one in particular. That said, there was one extremely interesting lecture given by Dr. Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale. The talk was about the psychology of morality and the academic debate of emotion versus reason in the development of morals. Dr. Bloom presented both positions:
Theory 1: Morality is emotional, not the product of reason
This idea is supported by studies of children who engage in what could be basic empathy skills to both other children (e.g., often crying when other babies cry) and adults (e.g., by helping adults open doors without prompting). The babies also seemed to be much happier watching videos showing characters that helped people versus those who hindered. Since babies don’t ‘reason’ in the way adults do, one might infer that empathy (and perhaps certain basic morals of human decency) is universal and hard-wired.
Theory 1 is also supported by what Dr. Bloom called the ‘power of disgust.’ He asked the people in the audience who viewed themselves as ‘morally liberal’ to think about what they would consider to be moral behavior for adults. The consensus was that assuming individual behavior didn’t hurt others, behavioral freedom should be allowed without moral judgment. Then he asked the audience to think about the following examples:
1) A brother and sister, both adults, often take family vacations together. On one particular holiday, they realize they are bored and decide to have sex together. The sister isn’t capable of having babies, and the brother and sister do not engage in sexual relations with each other again. Is this morally wrong?
2) A family’s dog is killed when he runs out into the street and is hit by a car. The family is grieving, but also realizes that they do not have any food in the house for dinner. They decide to cook the dead dog and eat it. Is this morally wrong?
3) A man buys a chicken (dead) at the grocery store for dinner. Before cooking it, however, he has sex with it. Is this morally wrong?
4) A man is cleaning his bathroom when he runs out of paper towels and rags. However, he has an old U.S. flag in his bedroom, and he uses this to clean the toilet. Is this morally wrong?
Now, pure ‘reason,’ according to Dr. Bloom, would say that these situations aren’t morally wrong. But perhaps it’s not that simple. Most of the people who were involved in the actual research said that it wasn’t morally wrong per se; rather that it was disgusting and ‘just not right.’ However, they couldn’t really explain why they felt that way. This is what he called Moral Dumbfounding.
Another example for emotional morality comes from what Dr. Bloom described as the Trolley Dilemma. You are standing near the tracks on a trolley, with a lever that controls on which track which the trolley runs. You find out that if you don’t pull the lever, five people a few miles down will be run over by the trolley and killed. However, if and when you pull the lever and derail the trolley to a different track, a single person will be killed who is on this track. Almost everyone selects to pull the lever, saving five people instead of one.
Now, when a person is standing on a bridge and sees the train coming toward the five people he/she cannot access the lever. But, there happens to be a large man on the edge of the bridge who, if pushed off, could take the brunt of the train’s power and save the five people by dying himself. The logic remains the same (saving five versus one), but many are now hesitant to push the man. It feels worse because an actual human being is the instrument by which we would save five.
Theory 2: Morality is deeply affected by reason
This idea is supported mainly by the existence of what Dr. Bloom refers to as “moral progress.” There has been a decrease in violence over history (as measured by murder). There has been a greater appreciation for the evils of slavery, sexism, and racism. And while only 5% of people approved of interracial marriage in 1958, a 75% approval rate was noted in 2007. Dr. Bloom reports that many of these people changed their minds about what is morally right and wrong through personal experiences and stories that challenged their mindsets.
Like virtually all psychological issues, one theory cannot explain the phenomenon of morality. Dr. Bloom therefore proposed an interplay between emotion and reason when determining morality, and his data is very compelling. He concluded by addressing why moral psychology matters: everyday you will meet people who share a different moral code than you. Rather than expressing your disagreement, consider how those people came to their conclusion. This creates greater empathy and the ability to address moral issues in a more productive way.
* This last lecture was actually quite good, just over the head of people like me who aren’t gifted in math and economics (or, as my mom calls us, “stupid.”)
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