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How Universal Is Our Morality?

Many aspects of our morality are culturally universal.

Key points

  • Utilitarianism argues that the most important factor to consider when judging the morality of an action is the consequences of that action.
  • Deontology argues that concern for individual rights and duties should be the primary consideration driving our judgments and actions.
  • A new study looked at how people in different cultures react to the same situational factors when judging the morality of harmful actions.

Imagine a world in which each country comes with a unique set of moral codes, where each of them has distinct preferences for punishing or allowing different behaviors. In such a world, creating policies to regulate ethical concerns, such as international business ethics, wars, or even artificial intelligence would be a Herculean feat. All countries would want to force their set of moral codes into the global policies, regardless of their incompatibility with those of the other cultures, leading to a story of never-ending negotiations.

But is this imaginary world of diverging moralities so distant from our real one? That is, could morality be more or less universal to all mankind, governed by basic cognitive or emotional processes? Or is morality subject to cultural differences? And if cultural differences come into play, are we really that different from each other—morally speaking—so that negotiations on international ethical regulations are doomed to fail?

These are the questions that I recently addressed with the help of a large team of scientists from the Psychological Science Accelerator network. Our paper was published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Utilitarianism and Deontology

There are two broad philosophical views that can guide people when judging the morality of certain actions. The first goes by the name “utilitarianism” and it argues that the most important factor to consider when judging the morality of an action is the consequences of that action. Bluntly put, utilitarianism says that minimizing the harmful consequences of any given action should be the main driving force behind judging its morality. On the other hand, “deontology” argues that concern for individual rights and duties should be the primary consideration driving our judgments and actions. To get a grasp of the difference between these two views, consider the trolley problem that illustrates this distinction:

An empty runaway trolley is speeding down a set of tracks toward five railway workmen. There is a footbridge above the tracks in between the runaway trolley and the five workers. On this footbridge is another railway worker, Fred, wearing a large, heavy backpack. If nothing is done, the trolley will proceed down the main tracks and cause the deaths of the five workers. However, it is possible to avoid these five deaths: Joe, a random bystander who happens to be standing right behind Fred on the footbridge quickly understands what is at stake. He sees that he can avoid the deaths of the five workers by pushing Fred with the heavy backpack off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The trolley will collide with him, and the combined weight of Fred and the backpack will be enough to stop the trolley, saving five lives. However, the collision will, without a doubt, kill Fred.

 Dimitry Anikin/Pexels
Train and footbridge
Source: Dimitry Anikin/Pexels

In the trolley problem, to save more lives (the “utilitarian” solution), one has to push the person off the bridge. However, according to the “deontological” solution, one should follow the rule of not killing another person no matter the consequences. What determines people’s moral preferences in the trolley dilemma?

The influential work of Josh Greene and colleagues suggests the role of situational factors in moral judgment. That is, people are more likely to judge harmful actions, such as pushing Fred in front of the trolley, as unacceptable if people used their actual physical force to commit the harmful action and if the action was intentional. In the trolley problem, both of these conditions are true. First, in order to save the people, you have to use your own physical force to push the man off the footbridge. Second, you also have to want this man’s death, in the sense that, without him actually being hit and killed by the trolley, you cannot save the people on the track. You must view death as a necessity—without it, five lives would be lost. In different versions of the problem, in which you don’t have to physically cause someone’s death, people are much more likely to judge the utilitarian action as morally acceptable.

Our specific goal was to see if people living in different cultures react differently to the same situational factors when judging the morality of harmful actions. For this, we presented people from 45 countries all over the world with different versions of the trolley dilemma, in which we manipulated the presence of physical force and intentionality of the actions. We expected that the physical force and intentionality effects on moral judgments are culturally universal, as they are thought to be driven by social emotions (such as regret, shame, or guilt) that were shown to be culturally universal. However, we also expected some cultural variations. People living in collectivistic cultures were argued to experience such emotions more frequently and intensely. Hence, we predicted that people living in collectivistic cultures would show more sensitivity to the effects of physical force and intention. Such differences could tell us to what degree a person’s upbringing influences their moral judgments.

Physical Force and Intentionality

The results were stunningly clear. Regardless of their country or cultural background, people uniformly thought that actions are less morally permissible if they are intentional and physical force was applied. The effects of physical force and intentionality are culturally universal. This part of moral judgment, therefore, is culturally universal and driven by basic cognitive or emotional processes that are universal to all of mankind.

However, even if the foundation of these moral judgments is largely invariable across the globe, we observed some country and individual-level differences. To get a better picture of the underlying factors behind these slight divergences, we tested how collectivism—the tendency of prioritizing group interests over individual ones—affects these judgments. However, we found no effect of collectivism whatsoever in the results—one interesting question for future research would be to test if different cultural variables could explain some variability in these effects.

The good news is that we are not living in a world where cultures are so different from each other that they cannot find a compromise to create policies on common ethical principles. We just have to learn to rely on our cultural universals and use them as bases for our intercultural ethics. Contrary to what many of us believe, our morality does not depend so much on our culture or nationality as it might seem.

References

Bago, B., Kovacs, M., Protzko, J. et al. Situational factors shape moral judgements in the trolley dilemma in Eastern, Southern and Western countries in a culturally diverse sample. Nat Hum Behav (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01319-5

Greene, J. D., Cushman, F. A., Stewart, L. E., Lowenberg, K., Nystrom, L. E., & Cohen, J. D. (2009). Pushing moral buttons: The interaction between personal force and intention in moral judgment. Cognition, 111(3), 364-371.

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