In recent years, cognitive scientist Marc Hauser has gathered evidence that suggests we’re born with a moral instinct. This moral intuition has been likened to the universal grammar that Chomsky famously suggested underlies our linguistic abilities – certain principles are set in stone, whilst the precise parameters can be set by culture. Thousands of people from multiple countries and different religions and demographic backgrounds have given their verdict on fictional scenarios presented online and from this Hauser has identified some potential moral universals [try out the moral tests for yourself].
One of these near-universal principals is that most people think it is worse to deliberately cause someone harm in order to achieve a greater good, than it is to cause some harm as a side-effect in pursuit of the greater good. Think of deliberately pushing a man in the way of a run-away lorry to save a crowd, as opposed to shouting at the lorry driver, such that he swerves away from the crowd, but instead crashes into and kills a man on the pavement.
Another is that most people think actions that lead to harm are worse than omissions (i.e. not doing something) that lead to harm. Think of a doctor killing a patient with a lethal dose, as opposed to letting them die by not administering a life-saving drug.
Finally, most people think harm delivered via direct physical contact – for example, pushing them to their death – is worse than harm delivered at a distance – for example, via a trap.
Most people match this pattern of responding but so far most participants have been from urban, technologically advanced cultures. Now Marc Hauser and his colleague Linda Abarbanell have translated these kinds of moral scenarios and taken them to a rural Mayan community in the highlands of Chiapas in Mexico.
The rural Mayans showed the usual bias for seeing harm caused deliberately in pursuit of a greater good as more forbidden than harm caused as a side-effect in pursuit of that same greater good. But Abarbanell and Hauser’s breakthrough finding is that the rural Mayans didn’t believe that harm caused by direct contact was worse than indirect harm and they didn’t think active harmful acts were morally worse than harmful acts of omission.
The researchers don’t think these differences emerged because of translation problems. Choosing to focus on the omission/active harm type situation, the researchers tried out several different scenarios, including one designed for use with children, and always the results were the same. The rural Mayans saw agents as more causally responsible for active harm, they just didn’t see them as more morally blameworthy. Moreover, when Abarbanell and Hauser tested a more urban Mayan population, they did show the usual tendency to see harmful acts of omission as less bad, thus suggesting that this difference in moral judgment is specific to the rural community.
They don’t have a specific law that forbids ‘looking the other way’, so why should the rural Mayans differ on this key moral principle? The researchers said more research is needed, but they think it probably has to do with the ‘highly intertwined social relations and their associated obligations’ in the rural Mayan society. Future studies could look to see if the omission/active harm distinction is missing from other small-scale, close-knit societies.
‘Ultimately,’ Abarbanell and Hauser concluded, ‘this research may suggest that some psychological distinctions are moral absolutes, true in all cultures, whereas others may be more plastic, relative to a culture’s social dynamics, mating behaviour and belief systems.’
Abarbanell, L., & Hauser, M. (2010). Mayan morality: An exploration of permissible harms. Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.12.007
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