Are Humans Moral?

The Times of India article – “If it’s too easy, we are likely to cheat” caught my attention today. The article discussed the results of a study conducted by University of Toronto Scarborough, to find the likelihood of people cheating. The research showed that “people will behave badly – if it doesn’t involve too much work on their part.” 

Rimma Teper the lead author of the study made these three statements :

“People are more likely to cheat and make immoral decisions when their transgressions don’t involve an explicit action,”

“If they can lie by omission, cheat without doing much legwork, or bypass a person’s request for help without expressly denying them, they are much more likely to do so.”

 “When people are confronted with actively doing the right thing or the wrong thing, there are a lot of emotions involved – such as guilt and shame – that guide them to make the moral choice. When the transgression is more passive, however, we saw more people doing the wrong thing, and we believe this is because the moral emotions in such situations are probably less intense.”

The results indicated that if human beings do not need to work hard for getting an advantage from unethical behavior, they are most likely to resort to immoral behavior. This got me thinking, if comparative mapping is done of gains achieved through hard work by ethical behavior with those achieved through unethical behavior, while ignoring risks associated with unethical behavior, people will mostly find unethical behavior to be more profitable. 

So my rambling thoughts continued. If risk of detection and punishment are the only deterrent to unethical behavior, then can we consider human beings moral?  What role does morality play in relationships and society?    

Bull in his book Moral Education (1969) explains this point thus: ‘The child is not born with a built-in moral conscience. But he is born with those natural, biologically purposive capacities that make him potentially a moral being’

He stated – “All morality consists of relationships between persons; that its three concerns are therefore, self, others and the relationship between them; and that the heart of morality is therefore respect for persons. [The child’s concept of a person] does not have to be learnt as such, [but] it does have to be built up by moral education in terms of knowledge, habits and attitudes.”

The above-mentioned two statements show that human beings need to be trained and educated in moral behavior to develop a moral conscience. This indicates that in the long-term a morally conscious human being is less likely to do unethical activities.

In my view, society is not making significant effort in raising its moral fiber. Without the required moral education, society will continuously witness lack of personal and business ethics. Under these circumstances can we blame anybody but ourselves? Is it not naïve to expect the world to behave morally when we are not willing to contribute towards building a morally conscious society?

Hence, two simple questions are how much focus is put today by parents and teachers to raise morally conscious adults? How much time and effort is spent by adults to morally educate themselves and strengthen their character?

Welcome your honest views here.  😉

11 comments on “Are Humans Moral?

  1. It would be folly to imagine that moral principles are more than a feeble flame of a candle in the wind. I’ve discussed this matter at great length in DOF (

    Reputational effects are very powerful. But they are not enough. The only sensible approach therefore is “Trust, but verify”. Checks and balances. Paying attention to human incentives (participation constraint/incentive constraint), etc.

    That leads us squarely to the classical liberal state that I advocate. The strong law must enforce accountability. Accountability must be determined precisely through laws. In doing so “moral” principles can be considered, but in the end all we care for is justice.


  2. Mahatma Gandhi had opined that “teaching of fundamental ethics is undoubtedly a function of the state.” When the state policy does not provide the platform to showcase the ethical values of its people then it becomes the responsibility of the people to create a state that would. I have in my theory of Governance split Responsibility into Ethical and Fiscal with Ethical being the exclusive domain of the people and the rest only Fiscal Responsibility.

    If one were to follow inGandhi’s dictum that ethics is a function of the state then in practice it becomes the responsibility of the people to elect a state they wish. The voters of Madurai shocked the world by accepting bribe for their votes but voters of Bihar showed that People prefer a state that supports ethics over any other criteria. It is a good sign

    Coming to the question of ‘Are humans moral?’ the answer depends on the individual group one is in. The person chasing wealth, person who is hungry, person after pleasures does not know what is Morality. It does not even apply to them whether it is easy or they are likely to cheat. They would cheat even if it is extremely difficult to cheat. That’s where the state comes to make things difficult for anyone to cheat. That’s where the People comes when they create the State they choose to rule over their fate. Bihar has given a good mandate but Nitish Kumar has to institute a corruption free state to give stability to it.

    This is possible only by creating IESB – International Ethical Standards Board overseeing the activities of those who are entrusted with public money. Ethics can flourish only by disciplined order, good institutions under a watchful eye. Make things hard not easy.

    • @Geoffrey Morton-Haworth: Zimbardo experiments are the trial of human passion when triggered knows neither fear nor shame. When state goes by the dictum ‘if law can do no right, let it be lawful that law bar no wrong’, then it is clear signal for the emergence of a broken society. My point is that state is the creation of our own efforts. As Bess Myerson says: The accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference, it is that attitude that has created the state we live in. So who is responsible? Ourselves and not the state.

    • Geoffrey,
      Thanks for the links to the videos. Watched both and dound them extremely lucid and useful. The question which comes up after watching them is that if normal people can behave so irrationally and inhumanly, then what is the probability of success for business ethics.

      As Jayaraman has pointed out that teaching fundamental ethics is the responsibility of the state. However, in India and other countries, the state is significantly failing to maintain fundamental ethics, leave alone teach them. If the governments are failing ot walk the talk and enforcing ethics, a normal citizen does not have much hope.

      As the other video has shown, crowd thinking can be easily manipulated. Hence, whether in politics or organizations, people are likely to behave in the manner they are manipulated. Hence, can corporate laws be effective in ensuring governance, risk management and ethics? If leadership at the top compromises ethics for personal gains, then all corporate laws will be breached. The public does not have an answer to it.

      I think that is the real fear, that irrespective of the goodness of human beings, anybody can be forced to do unethical behavior.

      • Hi Sonia

        Let me first say that I deeply admire your “moral imagination” and courage for venturing into these deep waters.

        Of course, truth is constructed socially. Nowadays, for example, attitudes towards sex before marriage have changed radically. We generally deplore female genital mutilation but see no harm in male genital mutilation. And so on.

        And it is possible for very moral people to have completely opposed views: pro-life and pro-choice on abortion, Israelis vs Palestinians, loggers vs environmentalists, gays vs homophobes and so on.

        A book I found helpful was Pearce and Littlejohn’s “Moral conflict: when social worlds collide”.

        If truth/morality is socially constructed then the way to a better, more-enduring, more-humane construct is through a better quality of dialogue. For example, I would strongly urge you to watch this video about talking to the enemy, quite the most sense I have heard anywhere about terrorism:

        This gets you to the questions “what is dialogue?”, “what is good or poor quality in dialogue?” and so forth. Much to say on all this but one thing is for sure the internet is a great resource. You deserve deepest respect for going to these places in your blog.

  3. Pingback: On the roots of our "moral" fiber | RA Psy Bits

  4. Geoffrey,

    Replied to your comment in the ‘What makes humans evil’ as I was unable to post a comment in the other post. Technologically challenged, can’t figure out why.


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