Monday, January 30, 2012

Why don't people act morally?

This is a piece written by Peter Singer (an author we'll see quite a bit of in my Philosophy and Public Issues course this term). One of the central questions addressed is:

Why are some people prepared to risk their lives to help a stranger when others won’t even stop to dial an emergency number?

I'm curious what readers of this blog think about the connection between biology and morality/moral behavior. How much can folks thinking about ethics learn from the sorts of experiments described in the article?

10 comments:

Rolo Polo said...

Roland Cross


I think a lot of this has to do with the way you grow up. Growing up, I was always taught to help others. If someone fell or was hurt, I should help them. But of course, that doesn't speak for everyone. I believe people help others because of the negative effects it would cause on their conscience. Many of us would think to ourselves "Well what if that was me who needed a helping hand?".

The people who don't help probably measure up the pro's and con's of helping and figure that helping would take up too much time or added stress that they would not want to deal with. For some people a person's life is not weighted very high.

Arpad H said...

I think that when animals (across phyla) who lack complex communication (specifically lack the ability to communicate abstract concepts such as moral codes) still show moral behavior consistently (If we can allow that reciprocal altruism is a type of morality) regardless of upbringing (if I'm not mistaken, they've done rat studies where the rats are kept in individual cages and not socialized) it becomes clear that behaviors (including moral ones) are at least partly genetic. As Sagan and Singer discuss in the article, brain chemistry also clearly has a lot to do with behaviors as we see in cases where drugs affect moods or actions (for brain chemistry to control behavior, our drugs need not be perfect -a reflection on current medicine and not on brain chemistry- they just have to make a difference in behavior).

It would be interesting to attempt a survey of scholarly ethology journals to see how prevalent reciprocal altruism actually is. Assuming that social species exhibit this type of altruism I would argue then that no, morality does not rely on on upbringing, and at least in it's basic level, is universal and a result of evolution (like everything else)!

However, I wouldn't be worried about a morality pill (at least in our lifetime), because I wouldn't be surprised if the neurotransmitters involved in morality are the same ones involved in other neurological pathways (assuming there even is a clear distinction between moral and other parts of the brain) and so consequentially, it would probably be very hard to make a drug that singles out moral behaviors. Maybe some futuristic micro-surgery or something instead?

Jesse Steinberg said...

Arpad, I agree completely that a survey of reciprocal altruism would be fascinating and might lend some interesting data for ethicist to boot.

Your last comment about micro-surgery gets into some fascinating issues about moral responsibility. If S gets the surgery and behaves in ways that we'd consider moral. Should S be praised for so behaving? But, of course, we might ask this of individuals that have not received such surgery. If I act morally and this is the result of some biological features of me, then should I be praised for acting morally? But this is getting us far beyond this post.

Thanks for commenting!

Arpad H said...

I think it's pretty clear that we are a product of biology/chemistry/physics/natural laws, and as such - yes, I do think that even under normal situations our morality is controlled by our brain-chemistry and not by some non-physical 'us'. I think if one accepts materialism than it's pretty hard to deny determinism. And then of course we (or at least I) have to throw out free will and (it seems) moral responsibility.

I guess accepting that is about as hard as accepting that teleology is false, but that doesn't make it any less true. We can still act as though we're free and morally responsible and have a purpose in life.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Arpad, I'm curious what you think of Frankfurt's example we talked about in class and whether, even if we are physically determined to do what we do, we are morally responsible for what we do. That is, are you a "moral responsibility compatibilist"?

BHFoster said...

Like Roland Said about growing up I to believe that but also along with that I am curious do you feel as if some people just may be scared and in shock as of what to do? That may be a cause of why they just "move on" and act like nothing happened?

Desiree` Lamer said...

I think that biology has a large affect on why people act the way they do. I think that every person is born with their own genes, personality and everything that goes along with that. It has been proven that every person's thinks differently and the reason people act they way they do is because of the things that are going on inside their brain. I think that the environment in which a person grows up in also affects the way they will look at the decisions they make. I do not think there is any way to make a pill to make everyone act morally as part of our decisions are personal choices, part are biological choices, and part are from our environment. I also think that the amount of education a person has can play a role whether a person acts morally more or less often than someone else. I think that someone who knows the legal aspect of the world might not stop to help someone in need if they fear there could be legal ramifications if they do help and something goes wrong. Also though I think that a biological aspect that plays a large role in moral decisions is fear, a person is afraid to act because they don't know what the right thing to do is.

Torrey Johnson said...

I agree with Roland that people may or may not act morally due to what they have been taught. I believe, as a child, a person learns most of what he/she knows as good and bad or acceptable or not acceptable. This is not to say it is not possible for a full grown adult to determine this but what people see as moral can easily be absorbed in a child's mind. For example, if a child's father regularly walked by people choking that he may be able to help in some way but doesn't, then the child is likely to do the same. He may think that it is morally permissible to do this. I think this relates to Singer's article. In the article Singer talks about "moral beliefs." I think these "moral beliefs" are learned mostly as a child. But I think this raises a very important question. Is it immoral not to provide assistance to an injured or dying person? I believe that in most cases it is immoral not to help. With the case about the dying two-year old in Singer's article, it was immoral not to help the child. It may or may not be legally acceptable but morally it is not acceptable. I do not think that brain chemistry can be blamed for instances such as this though. Of course we wonder how people could let this happen but this is just selfishness. In some instances people may have mental problems that could fit into this but I do not think it's possible for this many people to walk by this child, who may have issues with brain chemistry. I believe the best way to describe why this happened is with selfishness and self-interest only. The people just did not feel like helping. This is disgusting to me and shows how not everyone is willing to help a person that could have possibly lived.

KelseyMilliron said...

Like Roland said, I do feel that a lot of it has to do with the way you are raised. In many households morality is little practiced or preached and as the old saying goes "monkey see, monkey do." So while this is not entirely true, someone who is brought up in a household where morality is taught and expected they are more likely to act morally than someone who is ignorant to the idea of morality and how to be moral. I also feel a great deal of this is selfishness and also not wanting to recognize the difference between a want and a need. Many people want, want, want and they take advantage of all the simple things that other people may be in dire need for such as clean water and food. I actually have a friend who comes from a wealthy family and she is constantly complaining bashing the welfare system. Her complaint is that her dad works 60 hours a week and he has to pay his money to other people how is that far? While I understand where she is coming from I also understand that she is well off and her family is not struggling by any means. I also have a friend whose mother works about 90hours per week and she is struggling to feed her children and keeping the heat on in the winter. I explained this to my friend but she doesn't seem to understand why her family should have to help out. As I said I feel that this is just very selfish of her. I understand her family works hard for their money but so does my other friends family and they still really need help just to survive. I think this poses the biggest issue for why people do not act morally. They are too caught up in a consumeristic world where they rely on money and "toys" to make them happy. My one friend would experience great happiness to be spoiled more by her parents if they did not have to pay taxes, and on the other hand my other friend would go to bed hungry and cold every night if it weren't for the welfare programs that taxes generate. We all need to think a lot more like Singer and stop being so selfish. I feel that most Americans, including myself are lazy, selfish, and caught up in their wants. I also feel one of the biggest problems is people want to ignore or act like the struggling of others isn't as severe as it seems.

Jacob Klock said...

When you actually stop to think about it that is a good question to ask. I guess I never understood why people aren’t always willing up to help another person. Like in the cities for example if they see somebody getting mugged most people don’t even give two looks at it they just keep walking and pretend that they didn’t see it. Why not go over and try to help the person out, but that is just my opinion on the matter. I feel as though some of the reason that people do not want to help is because there are so many lawsuits out there now for anything that even when a person tries to help it seems like the person that they were trying to help turns right around and sues them for something. I feel like that might be part of the reason as to why others aren’t always willing to help out with things right away. Although if people were actually willing to help others out all the time it would make this world a lot nicer place.