The Echoes of the Mind – Morality


A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true. ~ Socrates

Morality is a biological process that appraises the rightness or wrongness of a behavior. Ethics is the philosophic codification of morality.

The core concept of morality is fairness, which is innate in all organisms, from microbes on up. Sociality would be impossible without morality. Lacking a sense of equity, an organism would have no means to assess the quality of interactions with others.

Moral judgments are stitched into the fabric of human nature, steering us toward cooperation and away from exploitation. ~ English social psychologist Jim Everett et al

Between 2 parties, fairness may play out as reciprocity, based upon immediate needs. In such case, a rough accounting of equity is made through a series of exchanges.

The degree of altruism’s exhibition depends upon individual constitution and cultural fostering of empathy. Irrespective of species, some individuals are more altruistic than others.

Most men have always wanted as much as they could get; and possession has always blunted the fine edge of their altruism. ~ American writer Katharine Gerould

Altruism and compassion are highly correlated, just as egoism is antithetic to altruism.

In assessing the morality of someone’s acts, we necessarily attempt to discern intention. An accident does not have moral implications.

Mind perception is the essence of moral judgment. ~ Kurt Gray et al

The ideal of justice is grounded in fairness. Restitution has always been an abiding principle of justice systems.

A moral judgment of wrongdoing typically provokes a strong emotional reaction. Conversely, witnessing right action is nonprovocative.

The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped us to be sensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice. ~ Jean Decety

An innate sense of fairness coupled to sympathy forms the foundation for compassion, an emotion humans share with other mammals and birds, among other organisms.

Compassion is the basis of morality. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Honesty is another dimension of morality. Like fairness, there are gray areas. Whereas deception for personal gain is clearly immoral, a “little white lie” to spare ill feelings is often considered compassion rather than an ethical lapse. The morality of honesty is ultimately tied to advantage, and so irrevocably linked to fairness and empathy.

Moral character information determines the impressions people form of individuals. ~ American psychologist Geoffrey Goodwin

People put great stock in their moral assessments. It is how individuals define themselves, and the most important criterion in adjudging others.

Moral traits are a reliable predictor for how individuals will fare as potential partners for cooperation and affiliation. One of the chief reasons we make distinctions among persons in the first place is to monitor suitable social partners, and indeed, a person’s moral character – as compared with, say, their personality or shared interests – is the ultimate dimension by which we judge friends, business associates, and mates. ~ Nina Strohminger & Shaun Nichols

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There are 2 opposing perspectives on ethics: deontology and teleology (also known as consequentialism).  Consequentialism casts morality by its outcomes. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill exemplify teleological ethics.

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals. ~ Jeremy Bentham

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. ~ John Stuart Mill

By contrast, under deontology, morality is in the act, not its outcome. Deontology is morality by rule, not result. Duty is a deontological concept.

Nothing can be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will. ~ Immanuel Kant

For Kant, goodness comes from acting “out of respect for the moral law.” The extreme of deontology is moral absolutism: that certain acts are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of intention or consequence. Kant’s position was absolutist, in that the sole determinant of morality was intent.

Intuitive and automatic judgments tend to be characteristically deontological, whereas characteristically consequentialist judgments are often the result of slow, deliberative cognitive processes. ~ American psychologist David Pizarro et al

People prefer empathic, cooperative partners who are trustworthy. We gauge trustworthiness from reliability, which is most apparent in those who have rules of right and wrong, who view morality in terms of duties and rights.

Individuals who make deontological decisions in moral dilemmas are rated as being more empathic and having a superior moral character compared to those who make consequentialist decisions. ~ American psychologist Molly Crockett et al

Practically, morality is a blend of teleological and utilitarian constructs. Deontic principles may be overridden if following them is considered harmful. Focus on fairness and justice embrace contractual moral theory with both deontological and teleological underpinnings.

Societally, morality is a social metric which may be deformed by group mores that are immoral.

Bad company ruins good morals. ~ Roman Christian evangelist Paul of Tarsus

Development of Morality

Taking his cue from Piaget, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a model for the developmental stages of morality, from childhood into adulthood. Kohlberg expanded Piaget’s 2-stage model into one with 6 stages at 3 different levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

Kohlberg considered moral development as occurring throughout life, with individuals at different stages regardless of age. Some adults never progress to the highest level.

Preconventional morality is based upon obedience and punishment in the 1st stage. In the 2nd stage, children begin to account for how actions serve individual needs.

Conventional morality views the morality of a behavior by its effect on relationships. 1st-stage emphasis is on conformity and being “nice.” This stage is often referred to as a “good boy / good girl” orientation.

The next stage emphasizes social order: people consider society as a whole when making moral judgments. The focus is on maintaining order by following the rules, respecting authority, and doing one’s duty.

The 1st stage of postconventional morality involves individual rights and the social contract. There begins consideration of differing values and beliefs. Mores remain important, but there is the thought that they should be consensual.

Kohlberg’s final stage of moral reasoning is based upon abstraction of universal ethical precepts. At this stage people follow internalized principles of justice which may conflict with mores and laws.

Kohlberg’s final stage of human moral development most closely corresponds with the natural morality of other organisms, where morality is aligned with fairness and social conventions play no part. Our sociality imposes the artifice of conformity onto morality.

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Kohlberg’s work has been criticized on several accounts. His theory is about moral thinking. Discrepancies often arise between moral reasoning and behavior.

Whereas Kohlberg identified distinct stages of moral development, individuals commonly mix their moral reasoning, in having rationales found in different Kohlberg stages. Also, moral thinking appears to be both situational and heuristic, not as conceptually context dependent as Kohlberg imagined.

There is almost always a problem with theories that propose the existence of unvarying stages. They don’t seem to bear out in real life. People can be highly sophisticated morally about some issues (human rights, racial equality, etc.), yet completely comfortable committing small moral infractions of rules regarding property (keeping money when a cashier mistakenly gives them too much change, for example.) ~ American psychologist Nancy Melucci

Kohlberg’s theory has been accused of having a narrow worldview: being Western-centric, middle class, and with a gender bias. His research subjects were all male, and most under the age of 16.

Women’s perception of self is so much more tenaciously embedded in relationships with others, and their moral dilemmas hold them in a mode of judgment that is insistently contextual. ~ American psychologist Carol Gilligan

Whereas Western individualist cultures emphasize personal rights, Eastern collectivist cultures stress social harmony. Kohlberg did not account for different moral outlooks.

Finally, Kohlberg’s model relies upon the abstraction of justice, without mention of compassion, which often figures in moral sentiment.

In sum, though contributory, Kohlberg’s theory cannot be considered comprehensive, or even well-informed from a scholarly standpoint.


People overoptimistically predict their own future moral behavior but accurately predict the not-so-moral future behavior of others. ~ American psychologist Jesse Graham

Morality has a strange contagion. People who witness moral acts are more likely to perform a moral deed themselves but are also more likely to allow themselves to act immorally.

The Evolution of Human Morality

Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots. ~ Frans de Waal

Though simian sense of fairness is fairly uniform, the tolerance of inequality that is a major determinant of morality depends upon sociality. Those primates with strong hierarchical social systems, such as baboons, endure considerable inequality. Sexual infidelity is not so much a moral infraction as an act with severe repercussion if caught out. Consequence discourages temptation.

Other monkeys and apes are more even-handed, in both empathic relations and insistence on equity at the risk of ostracization. This is consistent with many other mammals and birds, and corresponds with early human morality.

Sense of equality in human sociality has changed since prehistory, when foragers shared and held equity as an abiding moral value.

Socially acceptable inequality took root with agriculture. Once land had value, its ownership afforded the means to develop material surpluses and so acquire wealth.

Agrarian inequity was accepted because its origination was ostensibly of good fortune in plot selection and hard work. Farming sharpened the work ethic into a moral value unto itself.

The production of surpluses begat a gyre of materialism that became the defining characteristic of the human mind-set. Bolstered by religion, inequities of every sort became accepted as corresponding with the laws of Nature. These were perverse rationalizations.

From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule. ~ Aristotle

The socialism of hunter-gathers became a utopian fantasy. In his day Karl Marx was a wild-eyed radical in proposing that socioeconomic equity was not only technologically possible but morally desirable.

Despite scientific evidence of a universal human tendency toward moral judgments, views on morality have changed dramatically across history. Things we now consider to be horribly immoral were not always seen that way. ~ Lisa Cohen

Only toward the end of the 18th century did the most egregious inequity – slavery – develop into a moral issue in the Western world, even as its economic import peaked.

Social movements in the 20th century, such as women’s suffrage and racial civil rights, enlarged the body politic. Only in the early 21st century did this political liberation of subordinates eventuate in economic inequality as a nascent social issue (but not a moral one), instigated by an increasingly struggling middle class.

20th-century governmental efforts in the area of morality were largely confined to preventing the poorest from outright starving and putting a roof over the heads of a relative few. These ineffectual political measures were instituted largely to limit property crimes against the more affluent.

With rare exceptions, such as the Nordic nations, nothing has been done to stem the growth of economic inequality in capitalist states (and the Nordic measures are cosmetic).

Very few indeed view economic inequity as a moral issue. It is more commonly recognized as an evil only to the extent that it is a drag on economic growth, which depends upon consumers with money to spend.

Our world hinges on moral foundations. ~ Martin Luther King Jr.


Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today. But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away. ~ Roger Waters in the song “Money” (1973)

Capitalism is cold and calculating, devoid of emotion. But Socrates would not have been pleased.

What most counts is not to live, but to live aright. ~ Socrates

Humans are exploitative without regard to societal consequence (the dynamics of consequence typically being beyond ken, let alone of concern beyond personal gain or loss). Human technology coupled to unbridled greed begat an economic system that exclusively relies upon profiteering as a mechanism for allocating resources.

Exploitation incenses most simians: that a taker knowingly makes himself better off than his victim. At first glance, this moral instinct seems sorely dulled in humans.

Leveraging unfairness is precisely how capitalism functions to amass capital. Inequity is an inevitable cause and consequence of capitalism: the level of inequality produced ranges far beyond any tally of fairness. Yet capitalism thrives throughout the world. This owes foremost to the defective way in which moral judgments are made.

Determining intentionality is the first step in moral computations. ~ Jean Decety

Whether harm has been inflicted intentionally defines the ethical salience of a situation. Coincidental causality does not trigger moral outrage, however systemic it is.

Moral judgments are produced by reflexive mental computations that are unconscious, fast, and automatic. ~ American social psychologist Jay Van Bavel et al

Trade by barter is typically an apples-and-oranges exchange. Values are subjective, based upon respective needs.

Individual mercantile transactions fail to give an impression of unfairness because currency inserts a level of abstraction that blurs any inherent inequity. Owing to its obviousness, price-gouging is a notable exception.

The market system is not viewed immoral because it lacks motive beyond mere exchange. Failure to find malice fizzles feelings of wrongdoing. Drained of emotion, indignation has no legs.

Human lives as cogs in an abstract inequity machine is too cerebral to invoke widespread moral condemnation, except when the hangovers of its excesses become extended, such as during the Great Depression.

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As a cultural folkway capitalism provides an especial incentive to corruption, as the founding principles are utterly amoral: pursuit of self-interested exploitation under noncompetitive conditions.

The prevailing business culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines honesty. ~ Swiss economist Alain Cohn et al

Financial workers become more deceitful when thinking about their work. No other occupation inspires such dishonesty. The materialist frame of mind is a surefire formula for amoral behavior.

Capitalism warps the psychology of all that live under it. At best, poverty lowers the self-esteem of those afflicted with it. At worst, impoverishment provokes pathologies.

Cash is the mother’s milk of crime. ~ American criminologist Marcus Felson

Desperation generates crime. Having a mass of people within society struggling to live lowers the quality of life for all. Conversely, wealth engenders sociopathy. In filling the coffers of luxury, morality drains away.

As you move up the class ladder, you are more likely to violate the rules of the road – to lie, to cheat, to shoplift, and be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results. ~ Dacher Keltner

The meat of the capitalist sandwich – the middle class – struggle as wage slaves for their entire adulthood. Employment is a continuing source of stress, and unemployment an even greater one.

If we take a late retirement and an early death, we’ll just squeak by. ~ New Yorker magazine cartoon

Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment. ~ American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt

In contrast to innate, reflexive sense of fairness, moral reasoning provides post hoc justification of a judgment already made.

Logic provides no impetus to moral determination. Quite the contrary: cognition douses the flames of morality.

People can deliberately construe a wide variety of actions through either a moral or a non-moral lens with different consequences for their evaluations. ~ Jay Van Bavel

Practicality readily overrides morality.

People may act in ways that violate their moral values when they make decisions in terms of pragmatic concerns – dollars and cents – rather than in a moral frame. ~ American psychologist Dominic Packer

The human moral compass is inherently shaky. People are easily confused by ethical questions and may reverse previously held ethical beliefs with little or no new information.

People tend to make systematically different judgments when they face a moral dilemma in a foreign language than in their native language. ~ Spanish psychologist Albert Costa et al

How a situation is framed makes a world of difference in how it is ethically evaluated. Moral judgments are quick and harsh, bound to the conviction that others should concur. In contrast, pragmatic cogitations are slow, and conclusions malleable.

Being steeped in morality makes no difference. Ethicists are no better behaved than the average Joe.

It is ironic that people with easy morals are considered reasonable, while principled people are not. That makes the very idea of “moral reasoning” a canard.

Cultural Morality

Seeing oneself as part of a group readily warps morality. The erosion of ethics emanates from the empowering effect of feeling part of a larger force.

A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality. ~ American psychologist Rebecca Saxe

The role that a person plays in a group affects their ethical decisions.

When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses. The same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it. ~ American management academic Keith Leavitt

A sense of competition dims morality. Hence cheating is ubiquitous in professional sports, which combines competition with a compelling profit motive.

Ethics are largely erased when competition shifts from “me versus you” to “us versus them.” Individuals commonly apply different ethical metrics depending upon their group identity.

 Cards & Culture

The 1920s in the United States – the Roaring Twenties – was a period of remarkable financial predation. It was also a time when disrespect of the law was widely encouraged by the emerging failure of prohibition.

More and more people drank and gambled in flagrant violation of the law. The police were seen as looking the other way. It began to seem that only fools followed the letter of the law.

The crash and Great Depression that followed changed American culture in many ways. One way was in the card games people played.

Contract bridge was first played in the US in late 1920s. During the 1930s, bridge’s popularity blossomed. By 1941, when the Great Depression ended, contract bridge had become the most popular card game: 44% of American households played it.

Contract bridge is played by partners who must cooperate: a social game that was frequently recommended as a way to make friends, learn social skills, or even find a beau. Contract bridge is rarely played for money.

By 2000, contract bridge in the United States was in serious decline; viewed as a game for the elderly, with few young enthusiasts.

In contrast, poker – particularly Texas Hold ‘Em – surged in popularity in the 1st decade of the 21st century. Almost always played for money, poker is played by individuals for their own profit. The game encourages deception in the form of bluffing and keeping a “poker face.”

Of course, we know there may be no link between what is taking place at the card table and what is taking place in the economy. But if card games played by millions of people shift the role of deception, wouldn’t we be naïve simply to assume that such shifts do not also occur in the world of commerce? ~ American economists George Akerlof & Robert Shiller

Poker’s popularity peaked when the Great Recession of 2008 hit. Since then, speculation has lost favor, both at the card table and in the world at large.


People in the same tribe treat each other more compassionately and outsiders more coldly; hence ethical disregard by corporations, and the inherent immorality in coteries which feel besieged, such as the police.

The pressure of competing for a common resource can produce irrational hostility between groups. ~ Canadian psychologist Artem Kaznatcheev

Group identity is the springboard to brutality. Every army fighting a war commits atrocities. The more righteous the morale, the less moral the behavior of troops. This explains Islamic terrorism.

Political Morality

Politics have no relation to morals. ~ Italian historian and politician Niccolò Machiavelli

What constitutes a moral goodness varies by political viewpoint. Liberal-minded people rightly esteem fairness and compassion as the core of morality.

Conservatives have moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. ~ Jonathan Haidt & Jesse Graham

In contrast, conservatives more highly value tribal virtues: respect, loyalty, and purity (as they perceive it). Conservative reverence is to the preservation of the status quo, based upon deep-seated psychological fear and insecurity.

The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality, and is motivated by the need to manage uncertainty and threat. ~ American psychologist John Jost et al

Conservative societies built upon strict morality are rigid and extreme, and invariably corrupt. The Islamic world is exemplary. While tolerating inequalities, particularly subjugation of women, Muslim societies are too inflexible for freewheeling modern capitalism, which ultimately relies upon fluid corruption to propel it.

No latter-day Islamic nation has been a powerhouse of innovation or enterprise. The only wealthy Islamic countries are those sitting atop fossil fuels which the rest of the world so wastefully consumes. But even the well-oiled have yet to put their wealth to productive use that would benefit their peoples beyond pacification in the form of welfare.

This is in stark contrast to the 8th-century Muslim world, before its ossification via conservatism, when Islam was a locus of learning – scientific and medical – and a mecca for culture and trade.

The moral pose of right-wingers sends their hypocrite quotient skyrocketing. Religious conservatives are especially prone to sin: the repressive morality ostensibly embraced by many Christians often flames illicit desires rather than quenching them as intended. Christian preachers and prominent conservatives caught out for moral turpitude can frequently be found in the news.

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Right-wing men are often sexist as well as licentious. A good example is Fox News, the conservative media outlet that has been a cesspool of misogynist culture. Its cad corpulent chairman, Roger Ailes, resigned in 2016 when faced with a choir of women complaining about his sexual harassment and career retribution for not granting him lecherous gratification. His replacement came from loyalists to the old guard.

At Fox, you have a company that not only sexually harasses, but is willing to empower its executives and use company resources to carry out ongoing harassment in the form of retaliation. ~ Andrea Tantaros, former Fox News host

The scandal at Fox News was no news to the network, which barely made any mention to its viewers that anything untoward occurred. This sort of omission is not at all unusual. News organizations typically give scant coverage of their own peccadillos.

Fox is owned by right-wing Australian-born American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, with extensive media holdings in Australia, the UK, and US. To gather gossip, Murdoch-owned media in the 2000s illegally hacked the phones of royalty, celebrities, and people with a high public profile.

Rupert’s son James, after caught dissembling to a British parliamentary committee, admitted he knew of the illicit eavesdropping and did nothing to stop it. Fruit does not fall far from the tree.

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Of course, more pragmatic cultures are also corrupt and tolerate inequalities, especially the economic variety; thus the relentless materialism that prevails in secular capitalist nations, including China, where economic disparities have become as bad as the United States.

Since its wholehearted embrace of capitalism in the early 1980s, China became (again) a stellar cesspool of corruption. The rise in malfeasance has been helped by a culture long inured to social dominance hierarchies which engendered an intense sense of amoral self-interest, to the point of pilfering without remorse.

Kin relations aside, the Chinese are untrusting and untrustworthy. This owes to a consistency of corruption through their long history; a cultural attribute not easily shaken.

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There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel. ~ Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin

With its own history of exploitative authoritarianism, Russia is another incurably corrupt society. So inured to cronyism, its embrace of capitalism has been fumbling at best. Unlike the Chinese, whose mercantile instincts have been honed for millennia, Russian society has long been a hotbed of feudalism, often run by thuggish rulers who cast themselves as strongmen. Vladimir Putin was the early 21st century embodiment of this milieu. Understandably, Russian cynicism is legendary.


The evolutionary heritage of morality is ancient. Moral judgments are instantaneous and keenly felt when offended. But our species descended with sufficient self-control to override our instincts.

Given the facile ease in discarding morals, it is peculiar that people define themselves, and others, in ethical terms. This is the continuing dissonance between innate biology and the social systems which have outrun it.

The biological sense of morality is inadequate to deal with the complex social transactions that characterize commerce. Throughout history, humans have failed to buttress ethics to ensure fairness as a cultural imperative. This deficiency has formed the corrupt foundation upon which all civilizations have been built.

The prevalence of rule violations in a society, such as tax evasion and fraudulent politics, is detrimental to individuals’ intrinsic honesty. ~ Dutch social psychologist Shaul Shalvi