Pope Francis and Conscience: What Science Says About Morality

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The Catholic Church has rigorous language explaining what is right and what is wrong, but last week, Pope Francis urged people to look inward at their consciences while navigating moral dilemmas.

Instead of relying on the church for rules on how to handle the complexities of sex, marriage and family life, people should use their consciences as guides while also discussing the moral way to move forward with their pastors, said Pope Francis, according to news sources.

But conscience is a complex nut to crack, scientists say. Here’s a look at five fascinating studies that have shed light on humans’ (and animals’) ability (or inability) to understand right from wrong. [5 Animals With a Moral Compass]

1. Many animals are moral

There are myriad examples that suggest animals know right from wrong. In a past experiment, researchers found that hungry rhesus monkeys refused to shock their monkey pals, even if they could snag food for the harmful act, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce wrote in their book “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals” (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Another past example involved a female gorilla named Binti Jua, who rescued an unconscious 3-year-old boy who had fallen into her enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, Live Science reported in a previous article

These events suggest that animals can be moral beings, Mark Rowlands, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami in Florida and author of “Can Animals Be Moral?” (Oxford University Press, 2012), told Live Science.

Some experts argue that these “morals” are actually instincts, but Rowlands disagrees.

“I think what’s at the heart of following morality is the emotions,” Rowlands said. “Evidence suggests that animals can act on those sorts of emotions.”

2. Religious people aren’t more moral

Religion doesn’t make people more moral, a study on American and Canadian adults suggests.

Researchers surveyed 1,252 adults with different political and religious backgrounds to chronicle the good and bad deeds they had committed, witnessed, heard about or were the target of throughout the day, Live Science reported.

Surprisingly, religious and nonreligious people reported committing a similar number of moral acts, the researchers found. The same held true for liberals and conservatives — it didn’t matter what end of the political spectrum they were on; each had about the same morality.

However, there were some differences. Religious people reported that they felt more intense guilt, embarrassment and disgust after committing an immoral act when compared with the nonreligious people. The religious group also said that they experienced a greater sense of pride and gratefulness after they did a good moral deed compared with their nonreligious counterparts. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

3. Do-gooders can be sneaky cheats

People who think of themselves as highly moral people can also be sneaky cheats, a 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found.

Researchers surveyed about 230 college students in an upper-level business class. The students answered 12 questions about the importance of personal qualities, such as generosity, willingness to work hard, honesty and compassion. They also reported whether they had engaged in 13 cheating behaviors, including using cheat sheets (crib notes) or copying, Live Science reported.

Cheating was rampant, the researchers found. More than 90 percent said they had partaken in at least one of the 13 cheating behaviors. More than 55 percent said they had benefited from an instructor’s grading error, and 42 percent said they had copied from another person during a test.

Such “good” people tend to interpret their immoral actions in a way that makes those acts OK, study researcher Scott Reynolds, an associate professor of business ethics at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Live Science.

“If I cheat, then I’ll get into graduate school, and if I get into graduate school, then I can become a doctor and think about all the people I’m going to help when I’m a doctor,” Reynolds said, explaining one twist of logic.

4. People with OCD stress more about morality

Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) worry about morality more than people without OCD do, a 2012 study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found.

Take this scenario, for instance: If you were hiding with your family from enemy soldiers in a basement while holding a crying baby, what would you do? Would you suffocate the baby, killing it but saving your family in the process?

In the study, researchers posed this question and others to 73 people with OCD and 73 people without OCD. Each participant lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine when they heard and deliberated on the question. This allowed researchers to measure the blood flow to different regions of the brain, Live Science reported.

“Faced with a problem of this type, people suffering from this type of anxiety disorder show that they worry considerably more,” study researcher Carles Soriano, of the Hospital de Bellvitge in Barcelona, told Spanish news agency SINC.

In fact, the people with OCD had a higher degree of activation in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region associated with the decision-making processes and the development of moral sentiment, the researchers said. [5 Controversial Mental Health Treatments]

“The data allows us, for the first time, to objectify the existence of cerebral dysfunctions related to alterations in complex cognitions, such as experiencing morality,” Soriano said. “This allows us to expand further on the characterization of altered cerebral mechanisms in OCD.”

5. Morality depends on culture

Culture can influence morality, a new international study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.

The study involved 322 people from 10 populations on six continents. The people answered questions on how they made moral judgments, by explaining whether they thought people in made-up scenarios were good or bad. The scenarios included theft, physical violence and poisoning.

Each scenario included information about whether the act was unintentional or intentional.

Interestingly, people in Western societies said that intent mattered. For instance, if a person committed a crime unintentionally, the Westerners were more likely to report that it was less wrong. But, to people on the Fijian island of Yasawa and in two African populations, intent mattered less when it came to right and wrong, the researchers found.

For example, people in the African populations said that poisoning a water supply was wrong, regardless of whether it was done on purpose.

“People said things like, ‘Well, even if you do it by accident, you should not be so careless,'” study lead researcher Clark Barrett, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Live Science.

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook  Google+. Original article on Live Science.