Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things? That’s the fall focus of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum. Each week, we’ll gather some of the most interesting articles on the topic from across the online world. We hope they make you think—and share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.
David Nussbaum and Séamus A. Power: Generally speaking, we think of most interpersonal violence, not just terrorist attacks, as immoral. It’s very rare that you’ll see anybody claim that hurting someone else is an inherently moral thing to do. When people are violent, explanations for their behavior tend to invoke some sort of breakdown: a lack of self-control, the dehumanization of an “outgroup,” or perhaps sadistic psychological tendencies. This is a comforting notion—one that draws a clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But according to the authors of a new book, it simply isn’t an accurate reflection of how people actually behave: morality, as understood and practiced by real-world human beings, doesn’t always prohibit violence. (The Guardian)
A Stanford University team led by Daniella Kupor finds thoughts of God encourage risk-taking—so long as the behavior in question doesn’t involve breaking moral codes. Reminders of the almighty may make one hesitate to burglarize a home, but they can inspire one to experiment with an extreme sport. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)
Belief in long-term moral progress can offer the nonreligious protection against existential threat, similarly to how the religious gain comfort from religious beliefs. But belief in progress in general is not enough—it has to be a belief that the essence of humanity will get better. (Tom Reese, Patheos)
It is tempting to dismiss such examples of jerkdom by noting that “times were different” back then. But why were they different? Why are they better today? One bold hypothesis is that we have become, objectively, increasingly moral over the course of time. Several prominent thinkers, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, have argued in favor of this idea. (Dan Falk, Salon)
Research has shown that people are generally reluctant to undertake costly political actions, even for a cause they think will be beneficial. After all, there are so many worthy causes competing for our time, effort and resources, and we can’t contribute to every one. People think quite differently, however, when they are morally engaged with an issue. In such cases people are more likely to eschew a sober cost-benefit analysis, opting instead to take action because it is the right thing to do. Put simply, we’re more likely to contribute to a cause when we feel ethically compelled to. Still, why do liberals moralize environmental issues, while conservatives do not? (Robb Willer, The New York Times)
When someone commits a crime, do your instincts tell you to blame the perpetrator’s upbringing, background, education? Then you are, at bottom, a Platonist who rejects the idea of sinful depravity. On the other hand, do you tend to blame the perpetrator’s actions on a malicious will, because evil is chosen despite knowing what is good and right? Then you are, at bottom, a Pauline believer in the reality of sin. (Damon Linker, The Week)