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Enrico Petrucco

Senior Scientist, Johnson Matthey

TEDCRED 20+

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Can we unify our moral code?

From Haidt's talk, for humans there seems to be five moral pillars: harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, purity.
From de Waal there seems to be the possibility that non-human conscious creatures exhibit moral attributes too.
Saxe found that our interpretation of others actions within the moral realm stems from a source of brain activity that is not necessarily maximised in everyone - and I presume this is easily observable by those who have higher related brain activity.
Sam Harris argues that there are moral truths that can be answered by science and Dan Ariely presents an excellent example where he has done just that - by testing the harm and cheating principles.

With all of this under consideration: could we begin to organise a set of moral principles (possibly under Haidt's pillar set) which we can openly discuss in depth order to evolve our moral standards?

Topics: morality
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    May 1 2012: Is it a "unified" moral code that we need? Or is it just the will to discuss our code with others to sharpen our own code? Might we not be better off to just open discussion s about our code and try to understand another (even though we might disagree initially)?
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    Apr 29 2012: Being a research scientist, you cite many experts and their findings. So to offer an opinion without sufficient research to 'back me up' would probably be pointless. But since this is TED I will anyway. For me, moral codes are cultural phenomenon that attempt to express fundamental human truths such as: we love our children, we find a mate, we hate thieves, we look for friends, we seek to be free, we don't like to be deceived, etc. We look at different moral codes from different cultures and see many similarities, yet expressed differently. Why do we seek a unified code? Why would we want one? Is it because the codes themselves are disharmonious to humanity, or is it the exercise by individuals of their respective 'code' who use them as justifications for their own nefarious ends? Various fundamentalistic and militant religious sects come to mind as examples. Currently, in my opinion, it is our diversity that makes us great. A scientifically determined 'moral code' applicable to all has the potential for homogenization and a further dilution of the fantastically varied human experience. Too many cultures have already been decimated under the banner of 'we have the correct morality'. Scientifically determined or not.
    • Apr 30 2012: Why indeed would we want a unified moral code?

      A unified moral code is a requirement if we are to move into the future. People are traveling more and more for a variety of reasons. A unified moral code will be necessary to inform a more unified and equitable system of jurisprudence to facilitate travel and commerce. A unified moral code will increase trust and reduce ignorance and fear. A unified moral code will ensure no one is ever again subjected to abuse merely on the chance of where or to whom they were born.

      Diversity is not always a wonderful thing. Just as our diversity makes us great it also inhibits communication and cooperation between social and religious groups. Diversity can also be the root of ignorance and fear. Also, not all groups are created equal; some social groups are deeply disturbed. The members of these morally reprehensible groups would probably, given the opportunity physically and intellectually, leave those groups. Unfortunately, indoctrination can allow a human to feel very satisfied within social groups that when viewed from the outside are abhorrent.

      Everything on Earth has a beginning and an end, including cultures. Currently, many are born into dysfunctional and abusive cultures. Why should any human suffer just because they were born in one place instead of another or to one set of parents or another? If a culture or religion thinks keeping women as chattel is acceptable, should that group be preserved? Better to ask should we artificially preserve a culture if that culture prevents those born into those groups from flourishing.

      Cultures flourish or fail on their own. As the members of a culture discover competing cultures, they will, given the opportunity, decide how they wish to live their own lives. There is nothing anyone can do to prevent the death of a culture when the children of that culture are free to determine for themselves whether the culture into which they are born serves their best interests.
      • May 1 2012: How? All this fancy arguing for what? How could you possibly move towards a unified moral code? That removes the human element. Your running away from your pain. Blaming the way the world works for whatever happened to you. But you can't decide that human mistakes should be eliminated, that injustice should be eliminated, to do so would also eliminate the human race.
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        May 1 2012: Thanks Ethan for responding to my comment. Your points are clear to me and very organized. But I disagree entirely. All the best.
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      May 1 2012: "Too many cultures have already been decimated under the banner of 'we have the correct morality'. "

      This is true.........

      At first glance of the question Enrico presented I thought, of course!!

      Then, as I read the comments, I saw both sides of the issue......

      No wonder it is under debates.

      But couldn't we find a happy medium?

      I like the idea of overlapping........still, to have unity in moral code would mean unity in many other issues we face globally as humans.

      Hmm........this is a very interesting topic.
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    May 20 2012: Singularity is a long time idea of the world uniting - whether it is for a common goal(s) or through technological progression is where the word splits in philosophy - some people suggest both! Transhumanism; check it out!.

    How to unite the world? What would cause the world to unite? Interesting to think about, but may be a tad bit too macro in thinking about culture and society. Let's worry about little battles first, like an education system that will be the foundation for the world uniting! How would that look!?!?! What type of curriculum would set up for a world such as this...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOcKGREiY30 (Skip one minute in)

    Moral codes aren't just written down and then followed, culture decides what values are morally sound or not over generations. What is so very interesting is the fact the individuals of the cultures ultimately create those values, but still in response to the overall group... I hate Dawkin's Mimetics, but he has the right idea, although him terminology is bogus.

    Oh and a FYI, most of these neo-atheist (Harris and Dennett) are performing pseudoscience, and it gets over looked as such because of the cultures supporting it, I.E. our young generation of so called 'atheist.'

    A little off topic here, but when you have a bias against something the rest of your thinking is effected by such bias. Even a not so simple bias of "religion is destructive" because that bias is just misguided, ignorant and terminologically stupid. What is destructive is fundamentalism, but even then... If we created a foundation in which these ideals were not attacked, those fundamentalist would have no choice but to hear your side of the story and eventually mesh together into a larger culture. That is how it works and thus more why I reject mimetics as a theory. No units of culture here, just people not reflecting on what it is they believe and why they believe it due to tradition, like the New Age Atheism tradition rising now...
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    • May 2 2012: Without overguiding; would you wish to discuss specifics within, or in addition to, simple and powerful principles such as honesty, empathy, or liberty (amongst other principles)?
  • May 1 2012: A unified moral code does not mean that we all live in the same culture or have a unitary enforcement authority (if approached then an authority might be ubiquitous, made of all people). Certain things we could all (almost) already agree on. Sam Harris informs us with an example specific to the USA with child corporal punishment.
    It is true that many do not adhere to their own moral realm. Dan Ariely (and Zimbardo referenced below) provides insight into how some may deviate from a moral path and how we might be mindful of these effects on ourself and others in order to negotiate the pitfalls.
    On a practical level, human psychology is important and I believe additional input from Martin Seligman and Philip Zimbardo on psychology could help provide insight as to why we would want a unified moral code: http://www.ted.com/speakers/martin_seligman.html
    http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil.html

    As individuals do we not have the power to overcome the systemic and situational moral failures, then to also seek to reduce or learn from the dispositional moral failures in order to facilitate a more meaningful and good life?

    Could we not learn from current widely recognised moral behaviour and discuss where expansion is possible?
    Does anyone know the moral behaviours that the overwhelming majority of the world agrees on already?
    Do some see where insight can lead to fruitful discussion?
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    May 1 2012: The question is "can we unify our moral code". Absolutely. King Constantine of Greece in 325 AD called Council of Macaea to establish Christian Cannon even though he was Muslim. He took symbols, doctrine, and cannon from many religions to extablish the Christian Cannon. However, having said that there is no central authority with the power or influence to call or enforce such a meeting in modern society. It would be difficult to come to agreement with one party that believes "non-believers must die" and one that believes "forgive the sins of others", other that say "if you do not follow us you are going to be condemed to hell", etc ....

    We cannot even get our politicians to obey common moral codes, marriage vows, and even the law of the land. With that in mind how do we work to get the world to join in common codes.

    Just as a question even if we agreed to a common code how would it be enforced. I understand the pillars and applaude the effort. I would recommend that we start a little smaller. A village may share common morals but how about London, New York or other such melting pots of cultures and nationalities.

    A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Solve that first step in one large city and expand. All the best of luck. Bob.
    • May 4 2012: Robert, with all due respect, what are you talking about in your opening paragraph? Emperor Constantine I of Rome called the Council of Macaea- he wasn't the emperor of Greece. Furthermore, he wasn't Muslim. He had converted to Christianity in 312, and had issued the fairly revolutionary (in the Roman world, anyway) edict of Milan in 313, granting significant religious freedoms to citizens.

      Beyond that, he didn't define a moral code for all the Earth, just for the Roman Empire. And while that was the major western power at the time, to suggest he unified all the Earth's moral code would anger some North Europeans, Chinese, Africans, etc.
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        May 4 2012: Hi Adam, I went back to the above item I wrote and see I wrote "King" not emperor. I check with competent authorities and find they say he remained muslim through out his life and never converted to christianity. I believe he was over the Turkish not Romans. There was no intent to infer he solved the world problems. He did what he could within his relm. Bob.
  • May 1 2012: That depends on where you source the moral code. Maybe it is true that people are born with the understanding that an act such as murder is amoral; I think it is more likely that we collectively realize, at least at first, that we value our own lives thus that mass murdery rampage I was planning for later this week doesn't sound so appealing anymore. A better question might be 'do we want to unify our moral code?' I would think not. If we scale it back to the example of polygamy, what harm does it bring to you if I want to have 6 beautiful wives to perform glorious lesbian acts with? None at all! You may even get a few utils out of it! It seems a misguided endeavor to seek to unify a person's respective moral code. How is that any different from wanting to bring the plague that is christianity to the world? Let people be people, let them do wrong and learn.
  • Apr 30 2012: Governing needs to be along the lines of "how we make decisions" not WHO makes them.
    Perhaps getting rid of borders is also a place to start as there might be many starting points.
    What is this nonsense that some "country government" owns or has authority over its people?

    That is ludicrous to me to think any government "owns me", nor should they have any right to have any kind of authority over me. Authority is not the truth. Truth is the authority and each person is autonomous or should be.

    HOW WE COME TOGETHER rather than who tells us what we should do, believe, think or say.

    One of the biggest and longest standing problems of the human species comes from those who think it possible, and their right, to legislate, enforce and control the morality of others or any collective morality.

    There is a way to come together and it must be under, through and with freedom.

    We should stop proselytizing about remembering our history
    and start shouting instead that we should stop repeating it.
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    Apr 29 2012: anything that is to be implemented universally needs some sort of governing or monitoring body, we have global health monitors, financial monitors and so on who are mostly under the united nations. so the idea of having a unified moral code will also require a unified body or organisation presumably under a universally acknowledged institution to ensure the moral code is implemented as intended because we have free will but also require guidance in some maters , thus a global fight for control of this organisation might lead to chaos

    we all know that every nations have sovereign authority over their people and the world has diverse cultures whereby a certain morally accepted trait in one place may not be acceptable in another place a simple example is homosexuality.

    having a unified moral code is easier said than done
  • Apr 29 2012: Additional input on the subject for me has come from Michael Sandel's online Justice series - which has recently encouraged me to begin investigating Rawls Theory of Justice.
    There are too many if-thens to consider a 'no matter what situation' as plausible.

    The five pillar common ground that Haidt found among all societies that were gauged should inform the process. Is it not the most difficult tasks that may be the most worthwhile? Indeed, human rights is a good start, and the millenium assessments have helped inform how we need to try harder on an overarching scale.

    It is certain that our moral values have evolved with time. Should we not guide the process with intelligent selection rather than to allow only arbitrary selection? Sam Harris helps to inform this idea.

    I argue that we should seek to unify our moral code both to improve harmony but also to maximise our morality. If we can PROVE something correct within the moral realm then should we not widely recognise it?

    In seeking to unify our moral code I believe that we would follow a path of most mindfullness. That would be the only way for such a process to take place. Let us use an optimistic process...
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      Apr 29 2012: Thanks Enrico for this additional comment. Mr Harris bases his compelling arguement on extremism, which is is either 'there's only one right answer' or sociopathic abominations. He therefore sees science, or rational observation, as a great "balancer" - a sort of 'policeman' of diverse moral constructs. In the cases of extremism I would agree that some sort of objective agreed upon method of rational evaluation be implemented, for practicality's sake. But for me, it is a great leap to a 'unified moral code'. Science and rational approaches to the human condition have proven extremely beneficial for our well being, buy they are merely that - beneficial, not deterministic. Our 'faith' in science and our rationality has also had some dissappointing moments, as in the cases of eugenics and leukotomy as extreme examples. (I believe there was a Nobel prize for leukotomy).
      • Apr 29 2012: If you want to use a optimistic process, study positive psychology.
  • Apr 29 2012: Our moral code?

    Which code is that? Is there only one, or one way to look at all this?
    Three doors down from me, the little boy's morals are far different than those in my family, so there isn't just "one" moral code.
    But, maybe you are referring to some sort of DNA'ish moral code? Is that it? I don't think there is one seeing as how our genes give us a choice of responses regarding how we will respond to things in our environment.

    C.S. Lewis said, "everyone knows when they are being treated decently or indecently and conversely pretty much know when they are treating another decently or indecently. Soooooooooooooooooo,
    treat each other decently. Simple. The only catch is, "no matter what".

    Sounds similar to the so-called "Golden Rule". Treat others as you would like to be treated.
    The only catch is, "no matter what".
    "No matter what", would be the unifying feature you are looking for, for that is the only criteria that would work.

    It wouldn't hurt to first create civilization, which we don't have yet.
    And, also create a "just-system" in which to live in, instead of what we now have, which thrives on inequality, slavery, poverty, crime, greed, fear, war and death.

    These all lead to humans acting and behaving in ways they normally wouldn't simply because so many are not able to get their needs met.

    How we can unify at all, let alone along any sort of moral code, could be accomplished when people start coming awake from the brainwashing they have undergone. With all the lies they have embedded within their psyches
    they need to wake up but most, literally, don't want to know the truth. Collectively.

    Out of all the things we are afraid of, along with all that we need, want and desire to do, we won't even entertain ideas like Human Rights for all, as a beginning. Why? What the fuck is there to be afraid of with them? There sure as hell is a lot more to fear without them.

    If there is no such thing as a human right, then there can be no moral code for unifying us.
  • Apr 29 2012: Never will that happen in the history of mankind. We will never be that close together to unify a moral code, and if we do by some horrific chance, we will probably be mindless zombies.