Taking a moral high ground is humankind's greatest test

Doing the decent thing allows us to live in relative harmony but choosing to do so is our biggest challenge

This image released by NBC shows Kristen Bell, left, and Ted Danson in a scene from "The Good Place."  On Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, the program was nominated for a Golden Globe award for best comedy series. The 76th Golden Globe Awards will be held on Sunday, Jan. 6.(Colleen Hayes/NBC via AP)

In a recent episode of the hit show The Good Place on Netflix, a comedy that improbably centres on moral philosophy and ethics, the protagonists debated the age-old "trolley problem": if a runaway train was hurtling towards five people who have been tied to the track and you had the option of pulling a lever to divert the train onto another track, where just one person was tied up, would you do it? Would you sacrifice one life to save five or allow destiny to take its course?

For more than 60 years, this scenario, or some variant of it, has been presented as a dilemma encapsulating the moral decision-making process. Over that time, psychologists and neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in morality – that is, the systems and processes by which we determine right or wrong conduct. Many agree that morality is the key to tolerance, co-operation and progress.

In September 2017, the UAE rolled moral education classes out nationwide across both public and private schools. Initiated by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, this ambitious programme aims to instil values such as fairness, tolerance, civic responsibility, compassion and empathy. With no exams, no textbook and no specific ties to any particular creed, this initiative is as innovative as it is inclusive.

Last Tuesday, more than 180 school principals and teachers from the UAE met at a roundtable event to discuss the progress being made on the programme. Several important challenges were identified, including the capacity of individual teachers to lead lessons in morality, a subject with no clear defined boundaries, parental involvement and ways to get pupils to implement what they had learned into everyday life. Some headteachers, for example, suggested taking schoolchildren to volunteer at worker accommodation sites and hospitals or to enlist in beach clean-ups.

In previous times, moral education outside the home would have been imparted by a local religious figure. In the UAE, an imam or cleric might have performed this role; in Christian society, it might have been the local Sunday schoolteacher. In the best case scenario, this shaper of young minds would have been of exemplary character, embodying or personifying the morals he or she aimed to impart. What is more, the class or study group would have typically comprised students who at least nominally shared the same religious and cultural backgrounds. In today's increasingly diverse and secular societies, that model is not always realistic, suitable nor attainable.

The principals at the roundtable suggested there was a need for more specialist training to support the teachers tasked with incorporating moral education into the curriculum. But what exactly would this specialist training look like? Who would teach the teachers and what should the content of the course include?

This is where moral psychology has a huge role to play. Unlike the study of religious scriptures and moral philosophy, moral psychology is less concerned with proscribing wrong or right and more focused on the process involved in our moral decision-making. It looks at how we arrive at a conclusion instead.

By better understanding differences in the ways in which we make decisions about right and wrong, and examining the things that influence our moral judgments, we can enhance our own moral development as well as better appreciate how and why other people think the way they do. Understanding how people arrive at moral positions different from our own can foster empathy and tolerance. For this reason, moral psychology should be an essential and significant part of the teacher training for those delivering moral education, as well as for the students taking their classes.

As for parental buy-in, perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining just how important morality is to the future of humanity. We have done an excellent job selling progress and sustainability. We might argue that both progress and sustainability are underpinned by morality.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, does an excellent job of unpacking the importance of morality in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. A central theme is that co-operation has enabled humans to thrive and outperform all of the planet's other inhabitants. Maintaining this co-operation, however, remains humanity's greatest trial. Morality, he argues, is the brain's answer to this complex challenge.

Doing the decent thing is what allows us to get along relatively harmoniously. If we don’t do the decent thing and get caught out, we can rightfully incur the indignation of other people as well as feel the pain of shame, guilt and embarrassment. On the positive side, we might even behave decently out of compassion, empathy or gratitude.

Joshua Greene, professor of psychology and director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University, discusses the role of emotions involved in morality in his book Moral Tribes. Greene argues that basic and complex emotions such as love, honour, anger, guilt, shame and gratitude are essential parts of our moral machinery, ultimately responsible for promoting co-operation among otherwise selfish individuals. He says morality is "a suite of psychological capacities and dispositions that together promote and stabilise co-operative behaviour".

If principals and teachers can teach morality in a way which is relevant and inclusive, it will be for the greater good of the UAE and beyond. Its implementation will no doubt be challenging. However, this struggle is a worthwhile one when we consider that morality is a natural partner to peaceful progress.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National