We make moral decisions all the time, but do we really understand why we make them? Dr Robert Aunger explains how he hopes the ‘Test Your Morality’ experiment will unlock the explanations for our personal moral choices.
Whether we know it or not, we are constantly faced with moral choices.
Whether we know it or not, we are constantly faced with moral choices. Should you keep the wallet you just found on the street? Or tell that person on the train to take their feet off the seat? Or recycle your rubbish?
On a bigger scale, societies have to deal with new moral issues all the time. Technology constantly pushes back the boundaries of what is possible, raising new and unforeseen problems ranging from human cloning to cyber-bullying. Morality is everywhere.
Morality has been the subject of much research in recent years, and scientific opinion has largely concluded that we, as human beings, don’t properly understand the sources of our own moral feelings, even though we use them all the time.
For example, we may read in the newspaper about someone being arrested for having sexual relations with an animal . We find the act completely abhorrent, but may struggle to explain why. It just is.
This lack of understanding is a phenomenon called ‘moral dumbfounding’.
Our moral concerns are also very diverse - from sexual practices to financial irregularities to the things people say – but it is difficult to determine what unifies these moral concerns.
The Test Your Morality experiment was designed to look at a new theory, based on something called ‘Human Superorganism Theory’, that we hoped would help us understand this diversity, and the sources of our morality.
Human Superorganism Theory develops the concept that we, as individuals, behave as if we are part of a bigger ‘superorganism’ when we are organised into large social groups, as in cities or societies.
The new theory we investigated with Test Your Morality suggested that the functions we perform within this superorganism help define our personal morality.
Let’s look at the idea in more detail.
The new theory suggests that all moral actions are based on the fundamental need to ‘police’ society in order to keep the ‘superorganism’ functioning properly, and that everyone in human social groups inadvertently plays the role of ‘unofficial policeman’ by making judgements about how others behave.
Moral action, according to this theory, is driven by the expectation of punishment if we don’t properly carry out our roles within the ‘superorganism’ properly.
"We each play a variety of roles in the large societies of which we are a part."
We each play a variety of roles in the large societies of which we are a part. These range from our professional roles at work, to being a good parent, to being captain of the local chess club.
If we shirk on the job, or let our kids run wild, or cheat at tournaments, we can expect to be punished by others in the relevant social group. This may be directly, through confrontation or sanctions, or indirectly, through shunning or exclusion.
So why do we have individual morality? Why isn’t everyone’s morality the same? Because the theory posits that our moral responses are ‘tuned’ to the roles we fulfil in our social groups. We each fulfil different roles in society, so we each develop our own personal morality.
In Test Your Morality, participants were asked to respond to a variety of scenarios in which people were doing things that they might not have agreed with. They were asked about how disgusted and angry the scenarios made them feel, and whether they wanted to avoid or punish the people in them.
Participants learned how their moral responses to the scenarios compared to a wider population of people. At the end of the experiment they received detailed, personalised feedback about their scores.
The test revealed which of a person's moral traits were most prominent and where they fitted in to the ‘human superorganism’ via a personalised ‘City of Morals’.
We hope that by getting a large number of people from around the world to take part in this experiment, we can gain greater insight into the nature of human moral feelings and judgments, and how much they vary globally.
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