Test Your A-Morality


by Goran

TheTest Your Morality experiment is based the new “super-organism” moral theory. This “theory” happens to be just the latest among the disturbingly ubiquitous displays of profound ignorance as to what morality and ethics are about.

We are invited to take part in what Lab UK calls “groundbreaking science”:

“The new theory suggests that all moral actions are based on the fundamental need to ‘police’ society in order to keep the ‘superorganism’ functioning properly, and that everyone in human social groups inadvertently plays the role of ‘unofficial policeman’ by making judgments about how others behave.

Moral action, according to this theory, is driven by the expectation of punishment if we don’t properly carry out our roles within the ‘super-organism’ properly.

We each play a variety of roles in the large societies of which we are a part. These range from our professional roles at work, to being a good parent, to being captain of the local chess club.

If we shirk on the job, or let our kids run wild, or cheat at tournaments, we can expect to be punished by others in the relevant social group. This may be directly, through confrontation or sanctions, or indirectly, through shunning or exclusion.

So why do we have individual morality? Why isn’t everyone’s morality the same? Because the theory posits that our moral responses are ‘tuned’ to the roles we fulfil in our social groups. We each fulfil different roles in society, so we each develop our own personal morality.”

And the purpose?

 “Ultimately, we hope the findings from Test Your Morality will lead to an improved understanding of how morality works and could help us to organise our societies in more fruitful ways in future.”

To summarize:

1. Social groups are “organisms”. We, (you and I) are parts of an organism, much like ordinary cells are part of a body.

2. Social groups, like organisms, have mechanisms of self-defense which protect them from harm. We (you and I),  are much like anti-bodies, kicking into gear by firing up our moral judgments whenever a threat is on the horizon. We apparently do it both out of biological necessity and fear of punishment.

3. Now that we know what we do and why we do it, we will finally be able to organize our societies (organisms) in such a “fruitful” way that their well-being is better assured in the future.

This “theory” is based on several items of appalling intellectual recklessness:

– Poor analogy. I remember having similar thoughts at about the age of twelve. Then I read some books.

– The effortless transition from what we do and why we do it  to somehow knowing (usually in some future) what we (will) ought to do. (The incoherence of this sentence illustrates the incoherence of the thought behind it). No mechanism is ever given for this transition. We just need to trust that it will happen.  Never mind that, as far back as 1739,  David Hume demonstrated the impossibility of moving from “Is” to “Ought”.  But that’s just philosophy. No one takes it seriously any more.

– Like any moral theory, this one too pronounces “the good”:  “The good” is the “super-organism”, the society. The goal is to become better at protecting it. Inadvertently,  like a blind chicken, the “groundbreaking science” stumbles upon an “ought” – We ought to become better at protecting the society (organism) of which we are part. This, apparently, is the goal of morality.

The study of ethics is, it appears,  no more than observation of human behavior and formulation of theories that explain it. Then we have a Promise that in some future  sufficient amount of accumulated fact will make us “better”. This is based on an (accidental) assumption of what “the good” constitutes of.

On display here is the naturalistic approach to ethics. It seems to be all the rage in certain circles lately. It certainly sells a lot of books. As Richard Polt puts it in his excellent NYT article “Anything But Human”:

“Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.”

It is no accident that the “super-organism” theory completely ignores the individual. When a human being is explained away in terms of behavior, biology and, in this case, silly analogy, the individual is stripped of all value. That value is transferred to whatever accidental “good” happens to be given.  In this case it is Society, but the word is synonymous with “The People”, “Fatherland”, “Motherland”, or whatever other pet-name is given to the “Super-Organism”.

If this sounds sinister, that’s because it IS.  It is bad enough when these old, worn out, populist and ultimately evil-producing perversions of ethics are driven by political, clerical, nationalist and other agendas. This latest naturalistic fad is especially atrocious because it is based on agendas far lesser in scope. It sells books. It rides free on the enormous successes of our scientific endeavors. It appeals to common sense.

It is free of philosophy. It is a dry, empty husk, light as a feather, easy to lift. It is worthless.

It spreads ignorance.

The Morality Test is worth taking. If your results indicate that you are a danger to the “Super-Organism”, wear that badge with pride and walk away in full possession of your individual human dignity.

If your results indicate anything else, forget about it as quickly as you can. This has nothing to do with ethics.


2 thoughts on “Test Your A-Morality

  1. Kathy

    You’re so on target, and have neatly summarized what bugs me so much about this quiz. Yep, it’s worth taking, but beware reading your results without examining the spin they put on ethics.

    I’d also add that it’s just creepy that all the questions place you in moral judgement of some abstract other. I can’t recall one question asking me what I would do if confronted by an ethical choice.

  2. Theories about why we make the ethical choices we make all do seem to be extraordinarily simplistic. While the “super-organism” theory might be useful as a model to contemplate and question, it’s certainly one of the most simplistic of theories. So often, the choices we will most regret are driven by fear of social punishment. Remember the Kitty Genovese murder in the mid-60s? Supposedly, the murder was witnessed by numerous neighbors and passers-by who did nothing to help, out of fear of the consequences of getting involved. That conclusion has been questioned since then, but it remains relevant that it was plausible to so many people. It often takes tremendous courage to do the right thing, precisely because the social “super-organism” tends to punish those who do behave ethically (whistle-blowers, religious dissenters, protesters of unjust government actions).

    Kathy’s right – it hadn’t occurred to me that none of the survey questions asked a person to make any moral choice other than judging the behavior of others. One might argue it’s unethical, itself, to make these judgments when the information we’re given about the others’ behavior is so limited.

    I do feel rather proud of coming out extremely low on the “anger” scale.

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