Coursera: Moralities of Everyday Life by Prof Paul Bloom


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Is it morally right for a brother and sister to have sex while on holiday and that they have decided that they won’t do it again?

Is it morally right for a son to address a father by his name?

Is homosexuality moral?

Why do we make a big fuss about the Japanese killing dolphins but not pigs?

If you are an Asian reading this, your answer to the first three would probably be no, but can you explain why they are morally wrong? The above are some of the questions that the course tried to answer.

As in all my Coursera classes, this course is an eye-opener. This class on morality combines the philosophical and psychological studies behind every day morality. As Prof Bloom says, thinking about moral psychology and moral philosophy informs you about the different ways there are to address issues about everyday morality and moral differences.

Morality is defined as the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour. But what is right and what is wrong? Most of our moral rules may be just grounded in biases and emotions, and not rationality.

In this class, we were introduced to two approaches philosophers have towards morality.

1. Consequentialism or utilitarianism – one should act in a way that’s going to promote the best consequences, to promote pleasure and reduce pain.

2. Deontological – that there are moral constraints in some actions, regardless of consequences and there are categorical imperatives that are grounded solely on reasons; to act as if your action would become universal law.

We were reminded on the differences between immoral acts and illegal acts. There are laws that tell you shouldn’t do something, and very rarely does the laws punish you for not doing anything.  So if you see someone in need of help which you can provide but didn’t, you did not break the law but doing nothing in this instant may be immoral.

We are taught that morality are often guided by our emotions, like guilt, empathy, disgust. (Why we disapprove of the Japanese killing dolphins – because they look cuter than pigs. You may disagree but here is not the place.) To see how morality have evolved in humans, psychologists studied moral behaviours in animals and babies, which brings to mind the question, do religions make humans more moral?

We then look at moral foundations and how they explain the moral difference we experience between cultures.

1. The Care/Harm Foundation – eg: why it’s wrong to kill

2. The Fairness/cheating Foundation – eg: why its wrong to cheat

3. The loyalty/betrayal foundation – eg: why it’s wrong to lie

4. The Authority/subversion Foundation  – eg: why it’s wrong to address your father by name, and why honor killing happens.

5. The Sanctity (Purity)/degradation Foundation – eg: why incest, or homosexuality is considered immoral; why certain food is forbidden in some religions.

For certain cultures, the Sanctity foundation is valued very highly while in other society, Care/Harm and Fairness are more placed higher. This also explains the moral difference between conservatives and liberals.

Philosopher Peter Singer use moral circles to explain how we treat ourselves, our family, in-groups and strangers. While once it is normal to own slaves, this is now considered immoral/illegal because over history, the size of moral circle has expanded to include all sentient beings, and also even non-human animals like chimpanzees and dogs…and dolphins.

My class ended last week and coincidentally, Sherman’s Lagoon ran a strip depicting a humourous look at the consequentialism approach to morality. Makes me wonder if cartoonist Jim Toomey also attended the same class.

Incidentally, I was in the same class as my son Ivan, which make things interesting at home. Every time he does something I disapprove of, I can quote reason on the moral foundation  and know that he understands without me having to explain. That alone makes the class worthwhile.

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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