Dhanada K Mishra
bout 8-9 years ago, a video on YouTube suddenly caught the attention of a lot of people. In the video, a woman somewhere in UK, while walking down a footpath drops a cat into a dustbin and shuts it. The video was cause for much debate worldwide. The woman in the video later apologised and called it a momentary lapse of better judgement.
In our own country, not long ago in Chennai, a man flung a stray dog from the top of a building. Far more serious events such as mob lynching of individuals accused of consuming beef or smuggling cattle keep occurring. The apathy of bystanders in the face of such suffering keeps pinching our collective conscience.
In life, we face situations that test our morality. We face daily dilemmas such as, ‘Do I take a cloth bag for grocery shopping or use the plastic bags shops provide for free?’ or ‘Should I jump a traffic light if no other vehicle or police is present?’ Our actions and choices reflect our moral values.
Social scientists, psychologists and philosophers have over centuries been examining the character of humans. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, has said: “Man is a thinking being.” This is to imply that the difference between man and animal is the faculty of reason. Yet the fact that everybody has reason does not imply that everybody uses it the right way. This may be why British philosopher Bertrand Russel commented: “It may be true that man is a thinking being, but I am yet to meet such a man.”
From Aristotle to Russel, from Immanuel Kant to Sigmund Freud, and even philosophers of ancient India, people have for ages examined man’s character, his ability to comprehend, and his morality. Perhaps this enquiry spawned the idea of dharma in India and religion in general was established to influence human behaviour.
However, today it is increasingly possible to examine from a scientific viewpoint our everyday morality and how it deals with everyday life.
Let us start with the infamous ethical dilemma called the “Trolley Problem”. You are standing next to a railway fork with a train speeding towards you. You see 5 workers on one stretch of track and one worker on the other. You are near the track switch and can divert the train as required. The question is whether you would sacrifice one life to save 5. What would you do if you were in that situation?
This question has been posed to innumerable people since the 1920s. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents said they are willing to sacrifice one life to save five. But what if that 1 person was an acquaintance or friend? What if it was a family member or a child? In such cases, the 90 per cent slips to something closer to 35 per cent. Such experiments provide great insights in to our moral framework that influence our actions.
Two of the most important theories of morality are Deontology and Consequentialism. From a deontological point of view killing one person to save five lives cannot be justified while the same is clearly the superior moral choice going by the latter.
One famous experiment to test whether animals have any sense of right and wrong involved a pair of mice. While one mouse was offered food, the other was given an electric shock. After a few instances when the second mouse received electrical shock, the first mouse stopped eating.
Today behavioural psychology is teaching us many such aspects of not only humans but also other living beings. It suggests humans are evolving moral beings with a circle of morality slowly expanding from the self, to family and onwards to society and even the whole world. The age-old Indian concept of ‘vasudaiv kutumbakam’ or ‘the whole creation is my family’ is gaining currency to help us grow beyond our mundane selfish day-to-day existence in to a morally superior being.
This article is based on an online course by Professor Paul Bloom of Yale University titled ‘Morality of Everyday Life’. e-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org