Can We Really Teach "Right versus Wrong"?
There is a new study published in Science that attempts for the first time to answer some of these important moral questions. The study is performed not in the laboratory, but in the real world, providing a a rare glimpse into the moral dynamics of a society. The study co-authored by Wilhelm Hofmann, Daniel C. Wisneski, Mark J. Brandt, and Linda J. Skitka has the following abstract:
The method employed by the researchers, ecological momentary assessment, makes use of smart phones which allow for signaling and assessing each individual participant randomly and five times daily for three days. Each participant therefore can report if he or she has committed or witnessed a moral or immoral act. Each participant is asked to describe the event under one of the following categories: Care/Harm, Fairness/Unfairness, Loyalty/Disloyalty, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, Liberty/Oppression, Honesty/Dishonesty, and Self-Discipline/Lack of Self-Discipline. Since the responses from the participants are self-reported, it should be clear that these individuals are citing moral or immoral acts based on what they perceive as moral or immoral. Hence, in this study, when a person reports committing an immoral act, he or she is aware that he is violating his or her own beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. However, even in this large sampling, the survey also shows that there is considerable consensus among all participants on what constitutes a moral or immoral act. Both religiosity and political ideology are also gathered to see if these have an effect on a person's morality. Emotional outcomes such as happiness or guilt after a reported event are likewise included in participants' responses. Since the events are recorded chronologically, a correlation, if present between past and future events, can be drawn.
The study shows that religious and non-religious people are both likely to commit immoral acts. Where these two groups slightly differ is in their emotional response:
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Thus, it seems that knowledge alone does not determine whether a person would behave or misbehave. There are also correlations found between moral events. It is observed that committing a moral act earlier in the day is associated with an above-average likelihood of a subsequent immoral act and a decreased likelihood of a subsequent moral act. This sounds like earning a right to misbehave right after doing a good deed. Another correlation is that individuals who are at the receiving end of a good deed earlier in the day are more likely to behave later in the day. This one definitely shows that good character is seldom taught but often caught. Good acts can be contagious and can spread, but a good act can also lift self-righteousness which may be self perceived as a license to do bad.