The Moral Sense Test

I read an interesting article in the September 22, 2008, issue of Newsweek, called “Is Morality Natural?”

The thesis of the article is that “nature provides a universal moral grammar, designed to generate fast, intuitive and universally held judgments of right and wrong.”

So what would you do in the following circumstances?

  1. Would you drive your boat faster to save the lives of five drowning people knowing that a person in your boat will fall off and drown?
  2. Would you fail to give a drug to a terminally ill patient knowing that he will die without it but his organs could be used to save three other patients?
  3. Would you suffocate your screaming baby if it would prevent enemy soldiers from finding and killing you both, along with the eight others hiding out with you?

These are the kind of moral dilemmas being studied by Marc Hauser, professor of psychology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.

It was interesting to read that people with very different backgrounds responded in the same way.  It didn’t matter if you were religious or not, and when asked why they decided as they did, most people had no idea, but they were very confident in their choices.

Most said it was okay to speed up the boat, but they weren’t as sure about withholding treatment to the dying patient.  When it came to suffocating your own child, most originally thought it unthinkable, but later changed their minds to say it was permissible.


Apparently because scenarios 1 and 3 require you to take action, whereas scenario 2 requires an omission of an action.  Yet, all 3 cases would result in more lives being saved.

If you are fascinated by this topic, feel free to take the Moral Sense Test.


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