Christian Long

Dan Ariely: Our Buggy Moral Code

In TED Talks on April 21, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Reflection by BENEDIKT K.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Dan Ariely: Our Buggy Moral Code

Morals are an interesting phenomenon.

As far as we can tell, humans are the only one that are aware of them, that question them. Other animals have them, but they rarely investigate them, at least as far as we know. Our understanding of morals is thus one of the basic things that make us human. The only reason our society exists as we know it is because we do, or do not follow a moral code. Even more interesting is that this moral code is not fully universal.

Yes, we can all agree that killing a human being is probably no the right way to go at a problem or a misunderstanding, but what about the lesser things? Such as cheating on tests or in business.

We all know that whoever cheats less than everyone else loses, but what created the original cheater?

Ariely proposes that all humans cheat in a fairly uniform amount, but that the environment we are in defines how much exactly.

So we all cheat almost the same amount, but the slightest variation in the environment changes how we cheat. So if I am asked to answer math problems, I cheat more than if I am asked to answer questions on the ten commandments. Me being made aware of the morality of my action creates an adversity inside me to the concept of cheating. So the subject is part of the environment and changes your morality. But how we are rewarded for cheating also changes the amount. If I am paid in tokens instead of dollars, I cheat more than if the prize are simple green, federal-issue dollar bills. Even the group of people I am around cheat it affects my morality, whether less or more depending on whether I want to associate with them or not.

So our moral code is by no means constant, nor can it be relied upon, but our morality is based on minute to minute axioms, our intuition which consist of facts that we simply assume on the spot.

This poses several direct problems, including how we define whether an action is moral or not.

If the environment affects us as much as Ariely claims, it is hard to rationally convict anyone of being immoral. If the environment decides for us, can anyone not under that influence state that we are being immoral? More directly, is the notion of a universal moral code a completely false notion?

If the environment affects our decisions as much as Ariely suggests, I believe a universal moral code is a preposterous notion.

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