What Makes Us Moral?

We’re all concerned about morality, though truth be told most of hold to a self-serving bias: everyone thinks they’re more moral than most people.

Studies have found a gender difference, however, with women on average being more ethical than men. The correlation, more specifically, is with competitiveness. Men as a group are much more competitive than women, though an alpha female is likely to be less moral than a beta male.

What about other areas? According to Dr Dan Wisneski, professor of psychology at Saint Peter’s University, religious people do not behave better than non-religious people, and conservatives are not pinnacles of decency.

On the other hand, neo-atheist and liberal attempts to reverse these biases are equally false.

This mirrors the evangelical Barna Institute’s findings, though they did find that Christians are less likely to use the f-bomb in public. And other research has found that religious people do treat their fellow believers better than outsiders, though this in-group bias is true for secular cohorts as well.

Further, while religious people think and talk more about morality, this does nothing to increase actual moral behaviour. That is, moralizing amounts to finger pointing rather than genuine self-reflection.

Notably, however, liberals and conservatives have different notions of fairness. For liberals, fairness means equal outcome. For conservatives, fairness means a reward proportional to one’s efforts.

Both perspectives have their problems: liberal fairness enables free riders, and conservative fairness doesn’t account for societal prejudices which discount the equal or greater efforts of individuals who face discrimination.

So, what does increase moral behaviour? It starts with parenting, and this has more to do with how parents act rather than what they say. Learning empathy and to delay gratification are key.

In addition to being less competitive, accountability is also important. We’re more likely to behave badly when we think no one’s looking and when we think we can avoid consequences. As such, though social exclusion can be abused, it also serves an important function.

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2 thoughts on “What Makes Us Moral?

  1. That’s interesting. Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t feminized the very definition of moral? Which would then lead to the conclusion that women are more ethical than men. Sometimes I notice that male and female responses to the exact same situation can be very different. It’s not that either approach is wrong, it’s just that they’re different. The general cultural perception however, is usually that the female response is more ethical. But is it really? Rescuing baby seals off the beach for example, something that appears moral and ethical on the surface, but is actually harmful to the seals that haven’t really been abandoned. I’m laughing a bit here, but where I live we actually have to post guards to keep women from doing what looks like the right thing, the ethical thing, and “comforting” the abandoned baby seals.

    1. It’s a good question. When Lawrence Kolberg first created his theory of moral development he said men are more moral. Carol Gilligan challenged that, showing some biases Kolberg had. It could be a case of the pendulum going too far the other way.

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