The Moral Sense Test

From: Tyler Emerson (
Date: Tue Sep 02 2003 - 11:37:47 MDT

The Moral Sense Test

Sponsored by the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Harvard

The Moral Sense Test is a Web-based study into the nature of moral
intuitions. How do humans, throughout the world, decide what is right and
wrong? To answer this question, we have designed a series of moral dilemmas
designed to probe the psychological mechanisms underlying our ethical
judgments. By putting these questions on the Web, we hope to gain insight
into the similarities and differences between the moral intuitions of people
of different ages, from different cultures, with different educational
backgrounds and religious beliefs, involved in different occupations and
exposed to very different circumstances. Participation in the study is easy,
quick and completely confidential.

* * * *

Nothing captures human attention more than a moral dilemma. Whether we are
soap opera fanatics or not, we can't help sticking our noses in other people
's affairs, pronouncing our views on right and wrong, permissible and
impermissible, justified or not. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued
that our moral judgments arise from rational, conscious, voluntary,
reflective deliberations about what ought to be. This perspective has
generated the further belief that our moral psychology is a slowly
developing capacity, founded entirely on experience and education, and
subject to considerable variation across cultures. With the exception of a
few trivial examples, one culture's right is another's wrong. We believe
this hyper rational, culturally-specific view is no longer tenable. The MST
has been designed to show why and offer an alternative. Most of our moral
intuitions are unconscious, involuntary, and universal, developing in each
child despite formal education. When humans, from the hunter-gathers of the
Rift Valley to the billionaire dot-com-ers of the Silicon Valley generate
moral intuitions they are like reflexes, something that happens to us
without our being aware of how or even why. We call this capacity our moral
faculty. Our aim is to use data from the MST, as well as other experiments,
to explain what it is, how it evolved, and how it develops in our species,
creating individuals with moral responsibilities and concerns about human
welfare. The MST has been designed for all humans who are curious about that
puzzling little word "ought" - about the principles that make one action
right and another wrong, and why we feel elated about the former and guilty
about the latter.

As in every modernly held view, there are significant historical
antecedents. The origins of our own perspective date back at least 300 years
to the philosopher David Hume and more recently, to the political
philosopher John Rawls. But unlike these prescient thinkers, we can now
validate the intuitions with significant scientific evidence. Over the past
twenty years, there has been growing evidence for a universally shared moral
faculty based on findings in evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology,
anthropology, economics, linguistics, and neurobiology. This evidence has
created a powerful movement directed at the core aspects of human nature. It
is a movement that has the power to reshape our lives by uncovering the deep
structure of our moral intuitions and showing how they can either support or
conflict with our conscious, often legally supported decisions.

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