Are we ready for a morality pill?" with the instruction "let your followers discuss their impending extermination through pills." Apart from the obvious Clockwork Orange implications, I thought this was the most controversial part
Why are some people prepared to risk their lives to help a stranger when others won’t even stop to dial an emergency number?
Scientists have been exploring questions like this for decades. In the 1960s and early ’70s, famous experiments by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo suggested that most of us would, under specific circumstances, voluntarily do great harm to innocent people. During the same period, John Darley and C. Daniel Batson showed that even some seminary students on their way to give a lecture about the parable of the Good Samaritan would, if told that they were running late, walk past a stranger lying moaning beside the path. More recent research has told us a lot about what happens in the brain when people make moral decisions. But are we getting any closer to understanding what drives our moral behavior?
Researchers there took two rats who shared a cage and trapped one of them in a tube that could be opened only from the outside. The free rat usually tried to open the door, eventually succeeding. Even when the free rats could eat up all of a quantity of chocolate before freeing the trapped rat, they mostly preferred to free their cage-mate. The experimenters interpret their findings as demonstrating empathy in rats. But if that is the case, they have also demonstrated that individual rats vary, for only 23 of 30 rats freed their trapped companions.
The causes of the difference in their behavior must lie in the rats themselves. It seems plausible that humans, like rats, are spread along a continuum of readiness to help others. There has been considerable research on abnormal people, like psychopaths, but we need to know more about relatively stable differences (perhaps rooted in our genes) in the great majority of people as well.
Must it? This may just be an issue of semantics, but I don't think that this is necessarily a question of morality (big surprise). I think that the fact that there are some very moral people who sometimes do bad things (i.e. Milgram subjects or the Good Samaritan preachers) suggests that it is not really an issue of morality at all, but perhaps of attention. Sometimes our attention is directed at a "good" behavior and we have an impulse to act. Sometimes we are distracted or our attention is never caught or there is not the impulse. Under my theory, generally moral people are on the lookout for moral things and are willing to act (unless they get distracted or get conflicting cues, like in an experimental setting trying to make them look amoral). Is this too behavioralist? Has that all been refuted since I took psychology at university?
And what about mental state? One thing that most criminal laws and religions have in common is a distinction between a good/bad act and a good/bad mental state. For instance, many religious people believe that if you do good things and don't have good intentions that is not moral and vice versa. Similarly, many crimes require a particular bad intent or are mitigated by the lack of a bad intent.
I understand the rationale behind wanting to test morality by observing people's objective actions rather than subjective mental state (not just a "walk the talk" argument but an ease, consistency, and accuracy of measurement motivation), but I think (if my understanding of morality is at all accurate) that a person's level of morality is not merely a sum of a person's actions. I hope that's not true, at least.