December 13, 2012
People throughout history and diverse cultures have long debated over what deems our decisions, actions, and judgments right, wrong, good, or evil. Moral Psychology is a field that is at a crossroads within the fields of psychology and philosophy in the debate between good and bad. One of the ways Moral Psychology tries to define our moral judgments is through arguing that they are reasoned by our basic, human emotions. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University argues that as humans, we base our judgments of good and evil through our natural inclination towards empathy (Zak, “Moral Sentiments in the Brain”). Zak’s research “not only found that moral sentiments are real and measurable, but [was] been able to manipulate these mechanisms in human brains to cause people to be moral in the lab” (Zak) by infusing subjects with a synthetic version of a chemical already in the body called oxytocin. Moreover, “By changing participants' neurologic states using oxytocin…we showed that we could directly cause them to be virtuous…” (Zak). Paul Zak is one of many scientists who have tried to develop a concrete reasoning behind the ethical concerns of human behavior. From a philosophical perspective, it stands to reason that it is common for people to behave in such ways that benefit the lives of others, even if it is costly to their own wellbeing. “But at least since Plato's classic discussion in the second book of The Republic, debate has raged over why people behave in this way” (Doris & Stitch: "Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches"). Do people truly behave altruistically, or is it merely a reflection of self-interest? Both aforementioned studies give rise to this question: Is moral judgment specifically a factor of automatic responses such as emotion, or is there something deeper rooted in the morality behind human behavior, such as altruism. Controversy 1:
The latter part of the 20th century had brought about a “reawakening of philosophical interest in the emotions” (Oakley 1). This interest gave rise to even more evidence that moral judgment has a strong tie to intuitive emotional responses: “Concerning the roles of intuition, the research of Kohlberg and others indicates a truly astonishing regularity in the development of explicit moral theories and their application to particular dilemmas” (Doris 48). People react differently in different situations, depending on how personal that situation is. For example, causing harm can trigger a more intuitive emotional response as opposed to letting the harm happen, without having direct influence. For example, in the “…switch dilemma, a runway trolley threatens to run over and kill five people” (49). Is it fair to say that one is allowed to pull a switch that redirects the trolley in the direction of one person, killing that one person and conversely saving the lives of the aforementioned five? In general, most people say that this is the moral thing to do, taking a consequentialist view. However, this is contradicted by the footbridge dilemma:
Here, one person is standing next to a larger person on a footbridge spanning
the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five. In this case, the only
way to save the five is to push the large person off of the footbridge and into
the trolley’s path, killing him, but preventing the trolley from killing the five.
(You can’t stop the trolley yourself because you’re not big enough to do so.)
(50). In this case, most people surveyed portrayed the opposite reaction, saying that this was morally wrong and unacceptable. Interestingly enough, these people demonstrated a deontological standpoint. It seems, in the cases, moral judgment stems from the emotional response conveyed from the more personal situation of directly harming someone (50). (2B)
Joshua D. Greene is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University...
Bibliography: Doris, John M., and Fiery Cushman. The Moral Psychology Handbook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Doris, John and Stich, Stephen, "Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
Oakley, Justin. Morality and the Emotions. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
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