As we have seen in many places in this book, helping others is part of our human nature. And cooperation and helping are found in other animals as well as in humans. For instance, it has been observed that the highest-status chimpanzees in a group do not act selfishly all the time—rather, they typically share food with others and help those who seem to be in need (de Waal, 1996). As humans, our desires to cooperate are guided in part by a set of social norms about morality that forms a basic and important part of our culture. All cultures have morality beliefs—the set of social norms that describe the principles and ideals, as well as the duties and obligations, that we view as appropriate and that we use to judge the actions of others and to guide our own behavior (Darley & Shultz, 1990; Haidt & Kesebir, 2010).
Researchers have identified two fundamental types of morality: social conventional morality and harm-based morality (Turiel, Killen, & Helwig, 1987). Social conventional morality refers to norms that are seen as appropriate within a culture but that do not involve behaviors that relate to doing good or doing harm toward others. There is a great deal of cultural variation in social conventional morality, and these norms relate to a wide variety of behaviors. Some cultures approve of polygamy and homosexuality, whereas others do not. In some cultures, it is appropriate for men and women to be held to different standards, whereas in other cultures, this is seen as wrong. Even things that seem completely normal to us in the West, such as dancing, eating beef, and allowing men to cook meals for women, are seen in some other cultures as immoral.
If these conventions, as well as the fact that they are part of the moral code in these cultures, seem strange to you, rest assured that some of your own conventional beliefs probably seem just as strange to other cultures. Social conventions are in large part arbitrary and are determined by cultures themselves. Furthermore, social conventions change over time. Until 1947, Canadians of Asian descent did not have the right to vote in federal elections, and yet that convention has now changed for the better. And today many countries have legalized gay marriages, a policy that seemed like wishful thinking even a few years ago.
On the other hand, some of the most important and fundamental moral principles seem to be universally held by all people in all cultures and do not change over time. It has been found that starting at about age 10, children in most cultures come to a belief about harm-based morality—that harming others, either physically or by violating their rights, is wrong (Helwig & Turiel, 2002). These fundamental and universal principles of morality involve rights, freedom, equality, and cooperation, and virtually all cultures have a form of the golden rule, which prescribes how we should treat other people (as we would have them treat us).
Morals are held and agreed to by all members of the culture. In most cases, morals are upheld through rules, laws, and other types of sanctions for their transgression. We give rewards to people who express our preferred morality, for instance, in the form of prizes, honors, and awards, and we punish those who violate our moral standards.
Morality has both a cognitive and an emotional component. Some judgments just feel wrong, even if we cannot put our finger on exactly why that is. For instance, you’d probably agree that it is morally wrong to kiss your sister or brother on the lips, although at a cognitive level, it’s difficult to say exactly why it’s wrong. Is it wrong to kill someone if doing so saves lives? Most people agree that they should flip the switch to kill the single individual in the following scenario:
A runaway trolley is headed for five people who will all be killed. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto a different track where it will kill one person instead of five.
And yet even when morality seems cognitive, our emotions come into play. Although most people agree that the decision to kill the one person is rational, they would have a hard time actually doing it—harm-based morality tells us we should not kill.