Morality Degraded: The Academy’s "New Science" of Odd Behavior

Morality Degraded: The Academy’s “New Science” of Odd Behavior

by William Damon (Senior Fellow and member of the Virtues of a Free Society Task Force)

“Moral excellence cannot be explained by a science that reduces morality to biological impulses”

Human morality is a fine subject of study, always of interest and full of mysteries yet to be unraveled. Of course morality has been the subject of profound and passionate study for the entire span of recorded history, beginning with the early texts of the world’s great religions. That there are still unsolved mysteries after all these millennia should not deter us from the scholar’s quest; but it does suggest that we might approach the subject with some humility, perhaps even with a certain degree of awe and reverence.

The very existence of moral behavior raises the enormous question of why people ever try to pursue the good in the first place. Why not simply lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder, or whatever else it might take to grab maximum pleasure and advance our own interests in all ways possible? Yet most people actually do not do such things. In fact, once we get past the screaming headlines of the tabloids and sensationalistic “leads that bleed” of the nightly news, the extent to which everyday human behavior is civilized, law-abiding, and downright decent becomes plainly apparent. Most people generally resist whatever anti-social urges they may have. Why is that so?

Layered on this non-trivial question is another rather remarkable phenomenon: A public expression of morality can have an inspirational influence on those who witness it. Leaders with powers of moral persuasion can induce their followers to make momentous sacrifices. Against their prior personal inclinations, people moved by moral visions have been known to throw themselves into breaches during battles, transcend their prejudices to make peace with old enemies, and turn over large shares of their own wealth to others. Why would people be moved to respond to elevating influences in this way? How could this work in a species known for its self-preserving instincts?

Resistance to temptation, sacrifice, commitment, inspiration—this is the stuff of the mysterious moral sense that has broadened individual lives and held societies together for all of human history. But this is very far from the stuff of a “new science of morality” that has emanated from the academy lately, and that is dominating the media’s treatments of morality in places such as “The New York Times.” The “new science” is hard to square with the set of moral concerns that moves ordinary people to sacrifice and commitment in their own lives. The new science of morality has degraded the very way that morality is characterized and explained in contemporary public discourse.

How does this new science envision human morality? The lion’s share of the new science’s studies asks subjects a version of the following dilemma: A trolley car going 150 miles per hour loses its brakes while heading towards five hikers on the tracks. If the conductor lets the train stay on course, the five hikers will be run down. If he instead veers the train in another direction, he will run down just one hapless hiker who happens to be walking on a side track—but this means that the conductor will have done this actively, rather than passively, thus killing person intentionally rather than allowing the train to wreak its own havoc and kill five times that number of people. CONT’D HERE….


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One response to “Morality Degraded: The Academy’s "New Science" of Odd Behavior

  1. Bad or blinkered science does not sufficiently serve to condemn science or reason in toto as a method of studying morality.While this was in many ways a thoughtful and informed article, I found the author reaching for his own unexamined cliches. I almost stopped reading after I hit the hoary chestnut " Why not simply lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder, or whatever else it might take to grab maximum pleasure and advance our own interests in all ways possible?"I've never understood why religious folk will often say they would do just this if they did not have a God or morality derived from some higher power. The simplest bit of reasoning would show you that such behavior would NOT advance your own interests in the least. Even in a society without prisons, courts, and the law, you'd quickly find yourself victimized by others if you behaved that way. By example, you would posit a Hobbesian society of all-against-all, and set yourself up as a sitting duck for the first stronger thug that comes along.We live among other humans — and creatures — who could help or hinder us on our way; it tends to be in our better interests to compromise and work with them to achieve our goals, not against them.

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