Morality off. Check.

Eliezer Yudkowsky's been pursuing the essence of morality in his last series of blog posts. Here's a section from his most recent:

In 1966, the Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin presented, to 1,066 schoolchildren ages 8-14, the Biblical story of Joshua's battle in Jericho:

"Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword... And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD."

After being presented with the Joshua story, the children were asked:

"Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?"

66% of the children approved, 8% partially disapproved, and 26% totally disapproved of Joshua's actions.

A control group of 168 children was presented with an isomorphic story about "General Lin" and a "Chinese Kingdom 3,000 years ago". 7% of this group approved, 18% partially disapproved, and 75% completely disapproved of General Lin.

"What a horrible thing it is, teaching religion to children," you say, "giving them an off-switch for their morality that can be flipped just by saying the word 'God'." Indeed one of the saddest aspects of the whole religious fiasco is just how little it takes to flip people's moral off-switches.

Even most Christians I know would have difficulty fully accepting Divine Command Theory and yet the essence of it seems to be built into our Judeo-Christian culture in such a way that it corrupts our children's morality. Of course, Christians aren't out there deliberately teaching children to be immoral. It just happens when the blind lead, believing themselves to be the bearers of light.

I wonder at what age it would be possible to teach empathy and anti-tribalism.


I wonder how much of the effect show in the experiment was due to religion and how much was due to patriotism, though. After all, the atrocity was conducted in the name of "Israel", and even non-religious Israelis tend to be very passionate about their country.

A fair point, Vilhelm. I wonder what studies have been done that attempt to separate the effect of patriotism from religious indoctrination. My limited searching of Google Scholar is overwhelmed by the number of papers on Israeli identity when I try to look for papers that reference Tamarin.

Israel seems to have a particularly strong dose of nationality=religion=identity, as Tamarin found when he tried to get his nationality registered as Israeli instead of Jewish. His request was denied by the Supreme Court.

However, I would expect that similar results to his (if less polarized) would be found in children in almost any Western nation where they've been brought up in Christian families. My expectations are based on personal experience. I was brought up as a God fearing Christian, and passages from the Old Testament never struck me as particularly immoral until I was well beyond my teenage years. I look back now and wonder how I could have missed it, how I could have failed to shudder at stories of genocides (or were they "cleansings").

I was a smart, curious child. I asked lots of questions, but it seems that I wasn't asking the right questions. (Probably too focused on technical things.) I was lulled by being surrounded by adult authorities who had all accepted the idea that the terrific things told in the Bible were all morally right because God had commanded them, and God wouldn't have commanded them unless they were the best possible thing to do. Wiping out God's enemies was relegated as unfortunate but necessary.

How much of my own juvenile gullibility was fed by Jewish nationalism? As a non-Jewish Australian, virtually none. So in my case, the question reduces to how much my moral decision-making was influenced by religious training and how much was due to other factors like:
- being immature and having underdeveloped empathy
- watching slapstick comedy and violent cartoons, etc.

Those are the sorts of questions that would be good to see research studies on.