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If we want a fairer society, morality might not be the answer

Doing the right thing is rarely a matter of black and white – and might even prevent you achieving happiness, says Chris Paley
Illustration: Joseph Joyce

The playwright George Bernard Shaw apparently once said that “morals are a luxury of the rich”. If he was alive today, maybe he’d point to organic food, free-range chicken and carbon-offsetting.

But many of us look beyond these expensive signals of virtue and come to the opposite conclusion. Who do you think of as most moral? The hedge-fund billionaire who smokes a fat cigar after swallowing a palm-oil-free sandwich, or the single mum who skips her own meal so that her kids can eat a factory-farmed chicken from Asda? The A-list actor who flies first class between climate demonstrations (and always pays for carbon-offsetting) or the poor family in Krakow who burn coal to keep themselves warm?

Perhaps we are letting our jealousy affect our judgment. I rather fancy being a hedge-fund billionaire. I’m not one, and so maybe I’m doing down their ethics to feel better about myself.

What we need are some objective tests, or scientists who can tell us whether the rich or the poor have more morals.

Thankfully, lots of scientists have turned their minds to just this task. And their results don’t make good reading for the wealthy.

What we need are some objective tests, or scientists who can tell us whether the rich or the poor have more morals

They have found that the wealthier people think themselves, the less willing they are to share, and, somewhat comically, that the higher somebody’s status, the more likely they are to take sweets from a jar that would otherwise be shared with children. But my favourite experiment came from some crafty scientists who played traffic cops for the day.

The researchers set up at a busy junction in California. They kept track of which vehicles illegally cut in front of others. They counted the drivers who refused to stop for pedestrians at a crossing. They also graded the cars. The sleek Aston Martin of an early Facebook investor was classed as a ‘5’ in their system. The type of old banger my mum ferried me to school in was a ‘1’.

Not all rich people drive flash cars. But if you’re whizzing around in a Tesla you’re not scrubbing floors or serving coffees. So, were affluent drivers more likely to be careful because they respected the rule of law or because they didn’t want the blood and brains of poor people messing up their paintwork?

Neither. The fancier the wheels, the less care the driver took of others. Nearly half of drivers in the two most expensive grades of vehicle hurtled past the pedestrian at the crossing versus about one in four of those in the ropiest two classes. Grade ‘5’ drivers were four times as likely to cut in front of other cars as those in the rust buckets. When the rubber hits the road, the affluent know that the rules are for the little people.

These results aren’t pleasant. They‘re disturbing for the rich, who’ve now been found out. But they are also profoundly disturbing for scientists.

Beyond Bad by Chris Paley
Beyond Bad book cover
Beyond Bad: How Obsolete Morals are Holding Us Back by Chris Paley is out now (Coronet, £16.99

Only humans have what we can properly call morals. The female spider feels no remorse after eating her mate. Lions in the savannah don’t gather round and debate the finer points of utilitarianism when a male lion kills the cubs of his predecessor.

You and I can only moralise, and debate what is right and wrong, because we have a huge mass of highly-specialised gloop in our skulls. Why?

Since Darwin, we’ve had the outline of an answer. Humans moralise because it benefitted our ancestors’ genes. Perverse as it sounds, humans are generally good because it helps them get ahead.

But the experiments I’ve described above seem to cut across all that. They seem to say that we’d be happier if we didn’t have morals at all. Those who don’t follow the rules do better.

So was Darwin wrong?  No, of course not.

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Our moral brains evolved when we ran around the hills in tribes. In the past, being good meant you were trusted by your peers. Those who were bad were punished not by the police but by their neighbours.

Our brains aren’t designed for modern society. Morals don’t work when we live in cities, trade with people we’ll never meet again and when money, a staggeringly new invention, is a measure of success.

There are many great things about the modern world: I’m glad to have been educated, to have the NHS and that supermarkets exist. But our society is peculiar, and one of its peculiarities is that it richly rewards those who stay just the right side of jail time yet ditch many other measures of morality.

It turns out that George Bernard Shaw was wrong. Morals aren’t a luxury of the rich, they are often the reason that the poor are poor. Scientists have shown that our moral brains are anachronistic: they evolved, and belong, in an earlier time. If we want a fairer society, or a more just world, then we may have to look beyond morality for our solutions.

Beyond Bad: How Obsolete Morals are Holding Us Back by Chris Paley is out now (Coronet, £16.99)