The Human Spark

The science of human development

Do Moral Agents Behave Morally?

Morality can mean conformity to local norms or loyalty to private conscience.

Despite years of debate there is still no broad agreement on the meanings of the related words moral and morality. The reason for the ambiguity is that some want the adjective moral to apply to actions that the majority in a community classify as right, appropriate, and good. Courage, honesty, kindness, empathy, responsibility, fairness, and loyalty are the usual candidates.

Others want the word moral to apply to individuals who are loyal to their private definition of what is right, appropriate, and good. These two meanings of moral are not always consistent because a person’s judgment need not correspond to the actions that a majority in the community endorse as moral. Most Iraqis regard the killing of innocent civilians as amoral. But a Shiite suicide bomber who believed he had a moral obligation to kill Sunni civilians could do so with the private assurance that his actions were ethical. Europeans celebrate Thomas More as a prototype of a moral person because he refused to carry out an order from his king that would have required him to violate a standard that the king and many English citizens did not regard as binding. Shakespeare’s lines in “Hamlet”, when Polonius tells his son Laertes “To thy own self be true”, were rephrased by Henry David Thoreau in 1849, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” The Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer has the unfaithful wife of Gimpel the Fool return from the dead when she learns he is planning to violate his private conscience in order to tell her kind, trusting husband that he, not she, had chosen the happier path.

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Individuals in societies with a great deal of value diversity find it easier to advocate loyalty to one’s personal values. Hollywood films usually celebrate private conscience because America is a diverse society. By contrast, societies with less diversity, such as Japan, favor obedience to local norms because maintaining harmony, within a relationship, family, or community, is a primary moral standard. The Japanese Supreme Court acquitted a physician who did not tell a patient she had cancer because the doctor claimed that knowledge of the tumor would have caused the woman to worry excessively.

The rise of social networks, such as Facebook, might be making it more difficult for young people to honor their private conscience. An adolescent who violates one of the ethical rules advocated by his or her friends is vulnerable to a rash of critical messages and possible social isolation. A keen awareness of this threat keeps most network members in line. Thoreau would have been upset by this new force for conformity.

The hope of achieving a consensus across cultures and historical eras on the actions that are always moral or amoral has been frustrated by recognition that the terms moral or amoral must specify an actor behaving in a particular cultural setting during a historical era. The French protected freedom of expression for all religions for more than 200 years. Nonetheless, French lawmakers, with public support, made an exception recently when they banned the wearing of the burqa in public. Americans held a more favorable attitude toward justifiable killing of humans at the turn of the last century than they do today. Although a majority believe that the Assad regime in Syria violated international law when it used chemical weapons against its own citizens in August 2013, a majority opposed bombing Syria as punishment. The policeman in the 2013 film “ The Place Beyond the Pines” who kills an armed criminal feels guilty when he learns that the victim had a young son. I cannot think of any Hollywood film made before 1950 in which a cop who murdered a dangerous criminal felt guilty over his action. I have difficulty imagining James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or George Raft, playing the role of an officer of the law, brooding over killing a bad man no matter how many children he had. The world is so weary of the human distress that accompanies war, terrorism, natural catastrophe, and prejudice an ethic that demands suppression of all hurtful acts is gaining adherents.

Sexual intimacies between adults of the same sex were regarded as serious sins only a century ago. A majority of Americans in 2013 would classify all persons still holding that idea as amoral because of their intolerance of diversity. The American Psychiatric Association agreed when they removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses. The public thought this re-evaluation was the result of new scientific facts when, in fact, it was due only to a change in the values of American citizens. Shalom Schwartz of Hebrew University listed 10 ethical values that happen to reflect the sentiments of many contemporary citizens living in economically developed democracies. These include higher status, personal achievement, self-direction, hedonic pleasure, tolerance, new experiences, and contributing to social harmony. Buddhist monks, Shia clerics, Mother Teresa, and Hasidic Jews would question Schwartz’s claim that all of these values are universal.

The acts that satisfy a person’s private sense of virtue depend on the person, group, or entity selected as the primary beneficiary of the action. Each person has a choice of at least five beneficiaries: the actor, a member of the actor’s family, one of the groups to which actor belongs, the larger community, or the earth. Charitable actions intended to help someone in need can have the opposite effect if the recipient interprets the kindness as reflecting a condescending attitude or a moral smugness. Luis Bunuel’s 1961 film “ Viridiana” captures this dynamic by portraying an altruistic woman who invites the beggars, lepers, and pimps living in squalor in the city to live in the small houses that border the mansion she inherited from her father. Upon returning from a holiday she finds that the recipients of her kindness have invaded the main house, destroyed her crystal goblets, and stained her tablecloth with food and wine. In one of the last scenes the woman screams for help while being raped by one of the beggars. Bunuel wanted to remind viewers that if recipients of acts of kindness are unable to reciprocate and are reminded of their subordinate status, the generosity can evoke anger rather than gratitude.

Humans hunger for at least one ethical belief that transcends circumstances. Unfortunately, no aspect of nature transcends local circumstances, neither the properties of light, the size of a finch’s beak, nor a mother’s decision to protect her child from harm. Both definitions of morality- obedience to local norms and private conscience- presume that an agent’s intention was benevolent. Those who classified J. Robert Oppenheimer as moral when he opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb assumed that his intention was to avoid the deaths of millions of humans rather than help the Soviet Union. The classic defense of the significance of intention refers to the man who jumps into a deep lake to save a drowning child but, because he is incompetent, both drown. Most informants would agree that the action and the actor were moral because the man’s intention was to save a life.

An observer’s evaluation of an actor’s intention affects his or her judgment of the amount of harm a victim suffered, even when the harm is equivalent for an intentional or unintentional action. Most adults and juries regard a victim teased by a classmate as more seriously harmed if the bully intended to cause distress than if the teasing were unintentional. Perhaps that is why prosecutors have not brought criminal charges against the executives of mortgage companies who encouraged sales personnel to sell mortgages to clients who were unlikely to meet the interest payments. Most assume that the executives were greedy but did not intend to cause the economy to collapse.

Two final questions warrant discussion. The first asks whether the results of scientific research, by biologists or social scientists, might resolve some of the ambiguity surrounding the concept or morality. My skepticism, shared with the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, is based on the fact that natural phenomena are untouched by human moral concerns. Neither the extinction of the dinosaurs nor the proliferation of rats that followed was moral or amoral.

The second question asks why humans cannot suppress the urge to impose a moral evaluation on their behaviors and those of others. One reason is that they are aware of the fact that, on many occasions, they have a choice of actions. Hence, they need a set of beliefs that can guide the selection. The second reason is that from age two humans can infer the feelings of others and can empathize with their pain. Hence, they require a set of moral standards to protect them from guilt should they be the cause of another’s pain.

Humans demand an answer to the question, “ Are things today better or worse than they were in the past?” and are dissatisfied with the answer “ Some things are better; some are worse.”

Economists cite less infections, longer lives, labor saving machines, varied forms of travel, and more leisure time as evidence of progress, at least for our species. This list cherry-picks outcomes for it ignores the increasing proportion of adults older than 70 who absorb most of a nation’s health budget, increasing levels of income inequality, the rise of densely populated urban areas in which many residents feel anonymous, nuclear wastes that grow in size, pollution of air and water, and the increasing probability of a nuclear accident. The biologists who study evolution invented a criterion that allowed them to evaluate whether a mutation or a change in ecology was good or bad for an animal or species. By declaring that an animal’s inclusive fitness, meaning the reproductive success of the individual and all relatives, should be the criterion they asserted that survival of an individual’s genes across generations was an inherent good, whether the individual was a bacterium that caused a disease or a person who contributed to the destruction of the ecology.

Social scientists, however, cannot agree on the criteria to use when evaluating the consequences of an experience or social condition. If scientists discovered that 30 million Americans were at a higher risk for diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and a shortened life span because of a polluted water supply a majority of Americans would regard this situation as amoral and demand that the Congress alleviate this situation as soon as possible. About 30 million Americans who grew up in poverty are at risk for these same disabling medical conditions. But at least one-third of Americans do not regard this basis for the compromised health as a serious violation of their moral standards because they believe that a majority who are poor contributed to their unhappy situation. Hence, the government does not have a moral obligation to ameliorate this condition.

Facts alone are rarely a sufficient foundation for societal actions supported by voters. The public’s evaluation of the moral implications of facts must be added to the evidence. Scientific facts can disconfirm what had been regarded as a factual basis for a moral belief. When the evidence demonstrated that African-American children were receiving a less adequate education in segregated schools, the Supreme Court in 1954 declared this practice unconstitutional. The Court in 1896 was aware of the same fact but declared segregated schools constitutional. Facts are unable to supply the foundation for any ethical premise. That foundation resides in the sentiment of the community, and sentiments change with time.

The practice of using scientific facts to defend an ethical ideal has become common because of science’s dominating role in modern societies and a reluctance to base societal decisions on an ethical preference that some members of the society might not endorse. Hence, the need for a presumably impartial authority to decide on the morality of decisions that are essentially sentimental. Politicians ask economists to compute the cost-benefit ratios for profoundly moral outcomes; for example, extending the life of eighty - year- olds by six months by having Medicare and HMOs pay for heart surgery. Medicare paid close to 90 billion dollars in 2012 to prolong the life of elderly patients by less than six months. Economists estimate that each extra year of life for an American older than age 68 costs about 100 billion dollars. There is no rational way to decide if these expenditures are wise or foolish.

Many governments gave generous resources to their scientists hoping they would discover what was true in nature so that the public could be freed from illusions and superstitions. The scientists answered these requests by announcing that our planet and all its life forms were accidental events devoid of any special purpose or meaning . According to most evolutionary biologists, no one should expect an act of kindness from any person who is not a biological relative nor anticipate help from a stranger who does not expect a reciprocal kindness. These answers, which were neither expected nor desired, challenge the wisdom in the epigram, “ The truth shall set you free”. History has replaced the worry generated by superstitions over witches, sorcerers, and the Devil with the worry that trails the recognition that life has no ulterior meaning and one must maintain a vigilant posture in order to avoid being betrayed or deceived by friends, spouses, or strangers. Both states of worry are corrosive.

Everyone wants to believe they are moral agents, that is, good persons. This desire is present before the fourth birthday. A three-year-old who received more toys as a prize for a collaborative effort in which he or she did less work than a partner spontaneously gave some of the toys to the child who did most of the work. The preservation of this belief across many decades is accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction with one’s life. Societies vary in how easy or difficult it is to attain this precious state. Eighteenth- century Europeans could find evidence of their moral integrity simply by suppressing urges to engage in actions fueled by carnal lust, greed, anger, or jealousy. This assignment did not require help from anyone.

Contemporary Europeans and North Americans find it more difficult to obtain assurance of their moral status by engaging in the same suppressions because their societies tell them that sexual pleasures, wealth, and free expression of hostile feelings are acceptable goals that contribute to good health. John Updike advised his readers, “When in doubt we should behave, if not like monkeys, like savages- that our instincts and appetites are better guides for a healthy life than the advice of other human beings.” Contemporary adults try to prove they are moral agents by acquiring friendships, receiving praise for an achievement, gaining a higher status, or accumulating wealth. Many use these criteria to decide whether they have done what they were supposed to do . However, commanding any of these prizes requires the help of others.

The belief that one is necessary for the welfare of another also contributes to a feeling of virtue. Historical events have made this belief harder to maintain. Many adults in most places can survive and enjoy moments of joy without a spouse, child, or close friend to provide needed support. Day care centers can care for young children, frozen foods and take-outs make the talents of the assigned family cook unnecessary, several lovers of both sexes are available to satisfy sexual needs that a familiar partner might not be providing, and most adults have access to more than one lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant, banker, butcher, baker, plumber, carpenter, and mechanic when a problem arises. It looks like the extraordinary material advances that brought longer lives, less illness, electricity, potable water, computers, internet entertainment, and plane travel have exacted the cost of rendering many individuals expendable and, therefore, depriving them of the warm feeling that comes from knowing that they, and they alone, are the only ones able to satisfy the wants of a particular other.

The attainment of a goal after considerable effort is a third path to virtue. The machines and digital devices that penetrate most places have made it too easy to obtain goals that used to require many hours of hard work. Many commentators on human nature have commented that the joy accompanying the effort in pursuing a goal lasts longer and is usually more intense than the feeling that bubbles up the moment the goal is attained. The smiles on the faces of students on graduation day could not have occurred without the effort that preceded the receipt of the diploma. The probability that any of the many thousands of scientists who are actively involved in research will make a significant discovery that will remain valid for 10 years is extremely small. But they continue to expend energy and time in pursuit of this improbable prize because of the pleasure that accompanies the effort.

These conditions frustrate those who are searching for proof of their moral integrity. A century earlier Freud was certain that the superego’s harsh demands were the primary source of anxiety. Contemporary adults are anxious because they cannot hear what their superegos are whispering. A cartoon in “The New Yorker” magazine illustrates one man saying to another, “ I did my job and grabbed my pile but no voice at eventide has cried, ‘Well done’.” This disappointment has become more common, especially among members of developed societies. There is a lack of sacred objects or rituals that can generate a feeling of agape because they transcend ordinary human activity and symbolize goodness. The roles that used to enjoy a measure of sacredness- clergy, writers, scientists, philosophers, physicians- have lost that precious property because a few in these roles betrayed the ideals of selflessness, honesty, and humility that the public expected. The instances of abuse or neglect of children and marital infidelity robbed motherhood and marriage of the sacredness these ideas possessed centuries earlier. The practice among some Chinese scientists ambitious for a promotion of purchasing authorship of a scientific paper to which they made no contribution taints the mission of science.

If nothing is sacred, nothing can be profane. I suspect that giving or maintaining life is the only idea that retains some semblance of a halo of sacredness. Unfortunately, it is not possible to name a large number of other acts, feelings, thoughts, or intentions that remain moral indefinitely. Perhaps this openness has advantages. Because social conditions change with time, the ethical code a majority should honor ought to be receptive to change. Millions are moral paragons during their season, but very few are paragons across all seasons.

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.


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