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Question
Posted by: John | 2008/02/04

A Moral Quotient?

Hi CS, I know that you are not a fan of the all the popular psychological applications and developments that have come out in recent years (like emotional intelligence, for example) but I have come to suspect that there must be a scale of 'moral intelligence'.

There was a post last week by someone that was a victim of cheating and she then went on to cheat herself (so as to get a better understanding of the motivation to cheat and to help her deal with sundry mental images) and I was amazed that she had a lot of sympathetic support, that was quite vocal in congratulating her in doing what she had done and supporting this sad deed.

Without debating the merits (or lack thereof) of therapeutical cheating (!), it made me think that we all do not have the same moral compass. Why is this so? I know that sociopaths (psychopaths?) may have difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong (but that they probably know the difference pretty well), and yet here we had normal and ordinary folk arguing in favour of mutual cheating as a method of problem resolution and reconciliation. There you go, in technical colour nogal, mutual cheating as a means to reconcile. Sigh.

I was amazed that by this - I thought right and wrong were relatively easy to tell apart and that 4 year olds even know the difference between right and wrong - there was an absorbing program on the discovery channel about this - but here we have adults, educated and eloquent, agreeing that revenge cheating is therapeutic.

Are we losing it as a nation? There is a general disregard for the rule of law on the road (everyone quite happily breaks the law when they think they can get away with it), our crime is out of control and our society is in decay and we are rapidly establishing ourselves as one of the poorer 3rd world countries, our infrastructure and natural resoruces have become limited, abused and rare and it seems as if we are on the road to perdition, jettisoning morals and values as we go along.

Sorry, no real question just needed to rant, vent and rave.

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Our expert says:
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Hello John,
Its not so much that I'm not a fan of the concept that there are important human dimemsions including emotiopnal sensitivity ( in terms of skills in recognizing and working with one's own emotions and those of others ), but that I am very unimpressed by those who take something that has been widely recognized for ages, give it a cute name like "EMotional Intelligence", over-simplify it hugely, and write simplistic books, which may be financially profitable, but rarely produce any genuine befits for the readers. Some make an industry out of such conceits, selling expensive videos, DVDs and workshops, all of no genuine proven value.
In the example you quote, yes it was indeed astonishing that so many people were daft enough to suppose that cheating is EVER beneficial to anyone ( I wonder how many of them were cheaters ? ) --- by the criterion that what you propose ought at least to be reliably beneficial, the suggestion failed. But then there is the Moral dimension you raise ( sad how moral issues are not seen as so important any more ) --- apart from being effective, a proposed intervention ought to be morally Right and good, and realistic. ( Beheading probably cures a headache, but on all other dimensions is a truly lousy idea ).
I like the distinction between shame and guilt, that Shame is what you feel when someone else notices you doing something generalyl considered to be wrong, and Guilt is what you feel when YOU notice that you're doing something you consider to be wrong, even if nobody else ever notices or knows about it ). And modern society does indeed seem to be increasingly shameless and guilt-free. We do not seem to be teaching children a moral code to guide theselves by
Are we maybe born with an inherent tendency to see some things as good or bad, but vary according to personality and learning / upbringing as to the criteria we use for deciding what's good or bad ? A psychopath has such criteria, but for him Good is anything that makes him feel happy, whatever the impact on others.
aNNa raises what I think used to be called the Golden Rule. The Cheating debate earlier seems to vary from the old principle of Do As You Would BE Done BY ( treat others as you would like to be treated ) and returned to a more primitive rule of Do Unto Others as They Have already Done Unto YOU, which is surely a recipe for chaos ?
and why is concern about such issues seen as ranting and raving, rather than good moral exercise ?

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Our users say:
Posted by: aNNa | 2008/02/04

I think the Moral Quotient is very simple indeed:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

We don't even have to put a spiritual spin on it - I don't steal from people because I don't want them to steal from me, same with cheating, lying, murder, rape, gossip, unforgiveness, envy etc etc.

Reply to aNNa
Posted by: John | 2008/02/04

Perhaps you are right - you know the old saying that its not dark if, in the whole universe and all of the milky way, there is but one candle aglow somewhere so perhaps a rave or a debate is in fact that candle or candles?

As for the 4 years olds, this is what transpired: a caregiver, known to and trusted by the 4 year olds, took them into a room one at a time. In the room was a plate full of sweets. The caregiver told the kids not to touch the sweets as she, the caregiver, will give them a sweet when she returned to the room after two minutes. Of course, there was a hidden camera.

So, after the adult departed, the children showed one of three behaviours. Some simply went ahead and ate the sweets without so much as a by-your-leave and without hesitation. Others considered the sweets, were so cute in the indecision and were sorely tempted and some even went so far as to pick up the sweets, and then left the sweets alone. One or two simply ignored the sweets and looked elsewhere. Nothing remarkable about that.

However, when the adult returned and asked the guilty ones whether they had eaten any sweets, more than half of them lied and said no (the others that confessed with no pressure could barely speak above a whisper, so wracked with guilt were they) but it was amazing to see a 4 year lie, some badly, obviously lying, and a few with finesse and conviction (these would have to be watched in the future I think!).

I do know that virtue can be taught - or learned - as, in another program on BBC wherein several children were followed in this longitudinal study, one could clearly see the influence of the priest and his religious family on their 5 year-old as one could equally see the lack of virtue on the 5 year-old raised in very different circumstances (rough neighbourhood, father unemployed, cramped hous the whole cliche etc). These two kids are remarkable different, in outlook (they are interviewed a lot, from the time they can talk and they are used to seeing a camera around as these are there from birth) and they are quite relaxed in front of the camera and speak openly and from the heart.

Can we teach our children to be good, to make good choices? It seems that at least we can prepare a solid foundation, that we can point them in the right direct. So yes, I think we can, and, being a product of the time when a quick smack was considered good parenting for telling lies (and knowing nothing about now, when one explains right fom from wrong without emphasising each point on a different buttock with the flat of ones hand) I would say that children, generally, become what we teach them and what they learn.

Sadly the latter and the former are not always the same thing.

Reply to John
Posted by: Maria | 2008/02/04

You raise some interesting points John. How do you think the hypothetical four year old knows the difference between right and wrong? Are people born with innate morality (psychologists say not), or are moral values learnt, just like any other knowledge? If it's learnt, then our little toddler knows only what he was taught or learned from experience. And at that age he does the right thing because he wishes to avoid punishment, not because he wants to feel virtuous.

Perhaps all societies through the ages felt that their communities/countries/nations have lost the moral plot? Perhaps it goes in cycles? Or perhaps we are really in a mess of our own making, here and now.

One could blame parents for not raising their children with strong values... broken families, absent fathers, working mothers, kids raised in creches and aftercares... all those things come to mind. Coupled with a humanistic focus on human rights which makes it difficult for schools and care facilities to teach values by invoking consequences for bad behaviour, this does sound like a disastrous scenario.

Then there is the religious angle... I chose to remove myself from a church that preached a particular way of organising society out of the Bible, and then did a 180 degree turn and preached the opposite out of the same Bible. Who knows what else they could be wrong about? Perhaps churches lost their credibility as serving as custodians of our moral compasses. So did the government, come to think of it.

But surely all is not lost? The fact that we are having this conversation means that some people still care. And if those people care enough to a) follow their own moral rules and b) get involved in their communities to pass those rules on to the youth, I think the decay can be turned around.

That's my rant and rave for the day. :)

Reply to Maria

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