More on Morality From Michael Shermer

Yesterday, he explained why we can’t just look to God for guidance on what’s right and wrong. Today, as an alternative, he introduces us to the “Ask-First Principle,” which he pitches as an improvement on the golden rule:

To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask. You will almost always receive your moral answer swiftly and without equivocation. And, as often as not, you do not actually have to ask the question to know the answer. The thought experiment alone should give you a strong sense of what is right and wrong.

Why Can’t We Just Ask God for Moral Guidance?

Last week, Michael Shermer offered us a quick way to decide which religions are better than others. Now, he explains three problems with turning to God as the source of this moral judgment:

• Euthyphro’s dilemma:

Socrates is trying to show Euthyphro that there exists a dilemma over whether God embraces moral principles naturally occurring and external to Him because they are sound (“holy”) or that these moral principles are sound because He created them. It cannot be both.

• Silence:

Cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering, for example, are not discussed in the Bible, so what are believers to believe about these very real moral issues? One must either attempt to infer from ancient biblical writings something that is loosely related to the modern moral issue, or one must think it through independently.

• No longer applicable (inappropriate or wrong):

We need a new set of morals, and an ethical system designed for our time and place, not one scripted for a pastoral/agricultural people who lived 4,000 years ago. The Bible and other sacred texts have much to offer, but we can do better.

Go Green and Get Mean?

gogreenBack in June, we told you about a Northwestern University study that suggested we have a moral set point. As a write-up of the research explained, “when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated point of goodness.”
This seems to be just what happens when we buy environmentally friendly products, according to a newer study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. It appears that when we buy eco-friendly products, we think of ourselves as earning “moral credentials” that then give us license to do some not-so-good stuff: People who buy these products are more likely to lie, steal, and behave less altruistically.
Ironically, we tend to perceive people who buy eco-friendly products as more altruistic, ethical, and cooperative than those who buy regular products—but that’s a logical fallacy in and of itself, says
Nina Mazar, a marketing professor who worked on the research:

At the end of the day, if we do one moral thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be morally better in other things as well.

Do We Have a Moral Set Point?

A few years ago, psychologist Nancy Etcoff wrote a piece for Science & Spirit magazine in which she explained that “while feelings of happiness change from day to day, depending on the circumstances, people seem to have a stable midpoint to these variations, a general level of happiness to which they return after momentary irritation or elation fades. Scientists call this the ‘hedonic set point’ or happiness thermostat.”
So I was interested to read about a recent study from a group of researchers at Northwestern University who suggest we have a set point for morality as well. They ran a bunch of experiments to see how our sense of moral self-worth affects our behavior.
According to the scientists, people who behave immorally in one aspect of their lives tend to “cleanse” themselves by performing good deeds in other areas. But their model goes further, as a write-up of the research reports:

Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new Northwestern model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.

If they’re right, the opposite of the cleansing effect would also hold true: Performing a series of good deeds would raise our moral self-worth, thus leading us to do some not-so-good stuff to balance things out. That’s just what psychology graduate student Sonya Sachdeva, who worked on the study, suggests. “Imagine a line on a plane,” she says. “The only way you can come back down is either by refraining from good social behavior or by actively engaging in immoral behavior.” —Heather Wax

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