Are Humans Amoral?
Sharks are neither good nor evil. If a shark bites you, it’s not being evil. It’s just amoral, because it cannot understand moral concepts, and it cannot regulate its own behavior according to moral reasons.
Of course, that’s one of the key differences between animals and human beings – we do understand morality and we can control our behavior. That’s part of what’s so great about humans. Or so I’ve heard.
For a number of years, though, I have occasionally wondered if average human beings really possess moral concepts or motivation after all.
1. Metaethical Theories
As best I recall, I first started to question this when I was in college, and I heard some of the theories of morality that other people were putting forward. I heard, e.g., that some people think that morality is just a matter of social conventions. I found this so obviously implausible, given what I understood about morality, that I couldn’t see how someone who grasped moral concepts could think this was a viable theory.* On the other hand, if someone totally failed to grasp morality, but they wanted to explain how other people are using moral words, this is the sort of theory they might come up with.
*What’s so implausible? I just think it’s crucial to the idea of a moral principle that it’s not merely a convention. When, for example, you help a stranger who is in need, your reason for doing that has to do with recognizing the inherent value of satisfying needs – not with the fact (if it is a fact) that there’s a convention of doing that in your culture. Relatedly, if you are motivated to do something solely by social conformity, then I take that to be ipso facto not moral motivation. This strikes me as just obvious, in the same way that you’re obviously not morally motivated if you’re doing something good solely out of fear of punishment, or the desire for praise, or the hope for a monetary reward.
Some other metaethical views that make me question whether people grasp moral concepts: Egoists who think that morality is all about how to serve your own interests (I’m looking at you, Hobbes and Rand), or emotivists who think that moral talk is all about expressing emotions, or anyone who thinks that “why should we be moral?” is a sensible question.
Why not say that these are simply mistakes about morality, rather than indicating a failure to grasp moral concepts? (Most mistakes do not indicate failure to grasp a concept!)
Because these mistakes are just too fundamental, and too far off. Imagine I tell you that, after thinking about it for a long time, I have finally solved the mystery of what people are talking about when they use color words (“red”, “blue”, etc.). A color, you see, is actually a type of emotion. Obviously, only conscious beings can have colors; it is only through confusion that ordinary people attribute colors to inanimate objects. (Surely philosophers can find ways of defending this.)
At this point, you would conclude that I have no concept of colors. I’m probably just colorblind.
Of course, the partisans of these other metaethical views could say, in a perfectly parallel way, that they doubt that I understand moral concepts. So, without prejudging what are the actual English meanings of “right”, “wrong”, etc., I’ll just say that it appears to me that the relativists, egoists, and non-cognitivists all lack a certain set of normative concepts that I have (which may or may not be correctly expressed using ordinary moral vocabulary).
But how many people are relativists, egoists, or non-cognitivists? I don’t know. But I started to wonder about most people when I realized that a high percentage of people, among those who have views about the nature of morality at all, consider some weird theory of morality plausible. When I hear people describe their view of the nature of morality, it is very rare that it sounds to me at all believable.
What about all the people who don’t have an explicit metaethical view, which is surely the majority? I don’t know. But it would be surprising, wouldn’t it, if the people with metaethical views had less understanding of morality than those who didn’t even have metatethical views?
2. Evidence from Psychology
(a) The Infamous Stanley Milgram
Since college, I’ve occasionally run into other evidence of human amorality. Of course, everyone knows about the Milgram experiments, in which it emerged that 2/3 of humans are willing to electrocute an innocent person just to avoid the discomfort of disobeying a man in a white lab coat. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOUEC5YXV8U)
Since you already know about that, let’s go on to some other, less horrifying experiments.
(b) The Ultimatum Game
In economics/game theory, there is a scenario known as “the Ultimatum Game”. In this game, there is $10 available (in one-dollar bills), and there are two players, one of whom is assigned the role of “Proposer”, and the other of whom is assigned the role of “Responder”. The Proposer proposes a possible division of the money between the two people. The Responder either accepts or rejects that division. If Responder accepts, then the two people get the specified division; if Responder rejects, then both people get nothing. That’s it. Then they both go home and never see each other again.
The game theoretic prediction (assuming self-interested agents who value money) is that the Proposer says, “$9 for me, $1 for you”, and the Responder accepts. But this is not what usually happens. Rather, in experiments, most proposers actually offer “$5 for me, $5 for you” (see graph).
That’s nice. You see, people have a sense of fairness.
(c) The Dictator Game
… Or is it just that most people are envious and spiteful, and so most Responders will reject offers below $5 (they’re willing to give up some money just to stop another person from getting more than themselves)? And that most Proposers correctly anticipate this, so they reluctantly give $5 to the Responder to avert the spiteful response?
There’s another game that partially tests this called “the Dictator Game”. In this one, there is again $10 available to be allocated between two people. One person is assigned the role of Dictator. The Dictator decides how to divide the money between the two people. The other person has to take whatever the Dictator decides to give him. End of story.
In this game, the Dictators are considerably less generous. Some still offer $5. More give $3. Some give $2, $1, or $0. (see graph)
Still, the results are significantly more generous than the prediction of pure selfishness, which would be that everyone would give $0. These results are found, by the way, even when the Dictator and recipient are anonymous to each other (they never actually see or hear each other). So, this is still kind of nice, though less nice than the result we started with.
(d) The Dictator Game, Double Blind Version
Wait, there’s one more variant. Some psychologists wondered if the “niceness” of the Dictators might be due to social pressure, not from the other study participant, but from the experimenter. (http://hdl.handle.net/10535/5743) So they did another version of the Dictator game, just like above, except that the participants are anonymous to the experimenter as well as each other. That is, it was clear to everyone that no one, not even the experimenter, would know who gave how much money to their partner (the experimenter, obviously, would still know the statistics of how many people gave $0, how many gave $1, and so on, but he would not know what any specific individual did).
In this version, people are much less generous. Now the vast majority of people give $0; hardly any give $5. (see graph)
So there you have it. The “nice” behavior in the earlier Dictator game was not actually niceness. It was just a response to social pressure. When no one can see them, then the great majority of people revert to selfishness.
3. Interspecies Psychopaths
Maybe the biggest illustration of human amorality is our interspecies psychopathy.
Psychopaths are people who completely lack the capacity to empathize with others, and (perhaps as a result) lack all conscience. Like sharks, they do not grasp moral concepts. They can sometimes use the words “right” and “wrong” appropriately in sentences, but the psychopaths don’t actually know what other people are talking about; they just have a descriptive sense of what actions other people apply those words to. At least, that's my interpretation of what's going on.
So, e.g., if you happen to be annoying the psychopath by chewing gum too loudly, he might just shoot you dead to stop the gum-chewing. He would then sleep perfectly soundly later that night.
The vast majority of people, fortunately, are non-psychopathic and are able to empathize with others. This is part of why we do not kill, torture, or mutilate each other in the ordinary course of events.
… Except that we will happily do any of those things to members of other species, if we see some small advantage to ourselves in doing so. We’ll do it with complete callousness, and not lose a minute of sleep that night. In other words, most humans show empathy toward each other, yet act like psychopaths toward other species. Many appear completely oblivious to how this is a moral problem.
This, again, suggests to me that most humans’ apparent respect for morality is really not respect for morality at all. It is merely a mixture of social conformity and fear of other humans. Take away the social pressure and the fear of retaliation, and they become as amoral as your standard psychopath.
4. Ignorance or Evil?
The evidence in (2) and (3) need not be explained by a lack of moral understanding, though. It could instead be that most humans understand morality, but they simply choose not to act according to it (except when it serves their interests). That would make them pretty much evil. So you can choose which interpretation you prefer: Are average humans evil or merely incapable of moral reasoning?
Isn’t it absurd that so many people could fail to understand seemingly ordinary concepts that are apparently expressed in ordinary language? Isn’t this like hypothesizing that most people are color blind? Surely we would know if this was the case.
I don’t think it’s quite like that, though. Moral concepts are much more abstract than color concepts, and it is also easier to mimic understanding of them. So it’s more like hypothesizing that most people don’t understand the concept of probability. Which, as a matter of fact, is not so implausible. If you try teaching some time, you’ll be surprised by what people don’t understand. Like people who just can’t see how modus tollens is valid. Can’t understand the difference between subjectivism and nihilism. Don’t understand what you mean by “a belief”.
You might think, though, that perhaps I have misunderstood moral terms. If what I understand by “right”, “wrong”, etc., is very different from what other people understand by those terms, then maybe I’m misusing the words (using them not according to their standard English senses). But I’m not concerned about that; I don’t care about the use of the word “moral”. I want to know whether ordinary people understand the thing that I’ve been calling “morality”, whether or not I’m using the word correctly.
Anyway, the way that we could have not noticed that most people have no conscience is this: Most people have a strong instinct of social conformity, and that looks a lot like having a conscience, in most circumstances.
An objection: You can pose hypotheticals like, "If society approved of torturing babies, would it be morally right to torture babies?", or "If you could get away with stealing $5000 and no one would ever know, should you do it?", and most people (I assume) would give the correct answers. Right? That suggests that they do have an understanding of moral concepts. But perhaps it is only an implicit understanding; when they try to articulate it, they become confused and start saying obviously false stuff.