Morality study: What would you do for a million dollars?

Seven in eight Americans say they would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick a dog in the head.

However, half of Americans say they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike.

From attitudes toward puppies to politicos, a major new study now available on the Association of Religion Data Archives offers insights into how Americans apply ethical principles in the moral choices they make in their everyday lives.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as merciful, kind, generous human beings, according to the online survey of 1,519 people conducted as part of the Measuring Morality project based at The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.

Three-quarters of respondents said nurturing others gives them a warm feeling inside; 77 percent at least somewhat agreed with the statement, “I am a very compassionate person.”

When it comes to making real-life decisions, however, personal interests may take precedence.

So, only two in five respondents disagreed with the statement, “Regardless of concerns about principles, in today’s world you have to be practical, adapt to opportunities, and do what is most advantageous for you.”

The comprehensive survey included a series of questions asking whether increasing amounts of money up to $1 million would motivate individuals to commit certain acts. The questions, written by Jesse Graham, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, offer a glimpse into the depths and practical nature of the moral standards of Americans. In each scenario, respondents were told both that nothing bad would happen to them afterward and that they could not use the money to make up for their actions.

Consider these findings:

Dirty politics: Nearly six in 10 respondents said it is essential that political leaders promote empathy toward each other. Yet 13 percent of Americans said they would throw a rotten tomato at a political leader they disliked for free; another one in five said they would do it for $10,000 or less. Six percent said they would do it for $100,000. For another 10 percent, $1 million or more was their bottom line to toss the tomato. In a related finding, nearly one in five respondents said for the right price they would throw out a box of election ballots to help their candidate win.
Good and evil: Slightly more than half of the respondents said they would never get a transfusion of one pint of disease-free, compatible blood from a convicted child molester. A quarter, however, said they would accept such a transfusion for free.
Who’s an idiot?: Survey participants were more likely to accept money when they were the ones affected. Fifty-seven percent said they would be tempted by varying amounts of money to wear a sign on their backs for one month that says, in large letters, “I am an idiot.” Twenty-one percent said it would take $1 million or more to endure the humiliation. In contrast, 73 percent of respondents said they would never make cruel remarks to overweight people about their appearance.
Souls for sale: For varying amounts of compensation, one in five Americans would even sign a statement declaring, “I hereby sell my soul, after my death, to whoever has this piece of paper.” Three percent said they would do it for free; just 6 percent required at least $1 million.
Respecting children and animals: Respondents showed the greatest moral resolve in scenarios involving vulnerable populations. Nearly nine in 10 said they would never, for any amount of money, stick a pin in the palm of a child they did not know; 87 percent said they would never kick a dog hard in the head.

The online survey conducted in March 2012 represents the first phase of the comprehensive Measuring Morality project supported by The John Templeton Foundation. Sociologist Stephen Vaisey of Duke University is the director of the project, working with collaborators from several universities.

Vaisey said researchers are still in the early stages of analyzing the project data, but initial indications raise some concerns about the prospects for a more civil society.

There are real differences on questions of morality, he said, and the “tribal, two-party political system” in the United States makes it likely the nation will continue to experience a lot of tension in achieving public consensus on moral issues.

What does make him optimistic is that efforts such as the Measuring Morality project will help define what the moral divisions in the United States are, and the complex sources of those differences.

That type of understanding, he said, is the precursor to building “mutual respect and civility.”

And that is something the great majority of Americans say they want.

With the likely exception, of course, of the 1 percent of survey participants who said they would kick a dog in the head for free.

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