From John Ray's shorter notes
7 December, 2008
Instinctive influences on morality
I am one of the many who believe that we all have inborn moral responses. So when people say that something is "just wrong" they are not really being incoherent but are being guided by strongly felt moral instincts in themselves. I set out my thoughts on the matter at more length here.
A recent piece of research rather strongly supports that view. The research was based on the responses of a small group of (mainly) young women attending a minor British university so we must not get too excited about its generalizability but it may be a straw in the wind nonetheless. Below is one summary of it:"A new study has found that people are more likely to be lenient in making decisions if they have just washed their hands. British scientists who carried out the research said the findings suggest that jurors in criminal trials who have cleansed their hands may make their verdict less severe. And voters may be more likely to excuse a politician's misdemeanours when going to the ballot box if they have just had a shower.
In the study, 22 people who had washed their hands, and 22 who had not, were made to watch a disgusting three-minute clip of heroin addicts from the hit film Trainspotting. All 44 were then asked to rate how morally wrong they deemed the series of acts shown to them on a scale of one to nine, with one being acceptable and seven being very wrong. The actions included stealing money from a wallet, lying on a job application, cooking and eating the family dog, killing a dying plane crash survivor to avoid starvation, and abusing a kitten. All said they thought the actions were 'wrong'. However, the participants who had washed their hands were less likely to judge the actions as harshly as the group who had not.
In another experiment, a group was asked to read sentences with words such as 'purity' and 'cleanliness' before being posed the same moral dilemmas. Another group was given sentences with neutral words. Again, the 'clean' group judged the unethical behaviour less harshly.
Lead researcher Dr Simone Schnall, a psychologist at the University of Plymouth, said: "We like to think we arrive at decisions because we deliberate, but incidental things can influence us. "This could have implications when voting and when juries make up their minds." Lancaster University psychologist Professor Carey Cooper described the findings as "terrifying". He said: "It suggests that washing can make us more prepared to accept wrongdoing. "It is very scary when you think of the implications, especially in the judicial world."
The original report of the research is here.
So judgments of right and wrong are simply not rational. They are instinctive. I think conservatives will be a lot more comfortable with that than Leftists are. Leftist don't think ANYTHING (except homosexuality) is instinctive.
One should note however that the setting of the research was deliberately designed to draw out instinctive responses. People on a jury (for instance) may be less influenced by irrelevancies. Nonetheless it has long been known in psychological research that incidental factors can influence research results. This is merely the latest instance of it.
The original research article gives some interesting and plausible theoretical background to what they found.
If I were being devil's advocate, I would say that the results show that middle-class young women in Britain have been taught to associate cleanliness with virtue and to associate virtue with mercy so the old "more research is needed" applies here too. Would you get the same results with Lebanese? Maybe not.
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