What do you think? My answer is, “Mostly, no.” I believe virtue is mostly a matter of habit. This is not to say that reason has nothing to do with morality; obviously there are many dilemmas that require serious moral deliberation before one acts, so there is absolutely a place for reason. My point is that in most cases that confront us, we don’t have to think before we act morally; we behave morally (or immorally) because we have gotten into the habit of thinking and acting in ways that lead us to a particular moral response to a challenge.
A new study out comparing the way men behaved on the Titanic (1912) with the way men behaved on the Lusitania (1915) challenges that view. Excerpt:

On one boat, it seems, the men thought only of themselves; on the other, they were more likely to help women and children. This occurred for one key reason, researchers said: time. The Lusitania sank in about 18 minutes, while the Titanic took nearly three hours. Women and children fared much better on the Titanic.
“When you have to react very, very fast, human instincts are much faster than internalized social norms,” said Benno Torgler, an economics professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and one of the authors of the study, published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

George Pitcher, the Daily Telegraph’s religion editor and an Anglican priest, says this evidence shows that rational thought is, in fact, key to moral action, because it helps us overcome instinct:

It shows that people with time to think tend to rise nobly to the higher human qualities of self-sacrifice, compassion, love for others and hope in death, rather than mere self-survival. This in turn implies that these are rational responses, arrived at by reason rather than instinct, and are intellectual rather than emotional. The atavistic instinct of flight from danger is superseded by a human rationale that (largely) separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

But Father Pitcher goes further:

I choose to believe that this is evidence of the presence of the divine, incarnate in human nature, and furthermore I believe that it is illustrated eternally in the Christian story, or narrative as we must now call it, especially in this season of Lent. Others, such as Humanists, will argue that these qualities are present in the human condition without the requirement of a God having put them there; I respect that view, but I don’t buy it. Still others will argue that such rational responses are mere genetic hardwiring for the survival of the species, so we look after the survival of women and children to ensure the propogation of our tribes and selfish genes. I don’t buy that either; if we’re so hardwired, then that response would cut in at the instinctive-response stage.

Not necessarily. Neuroscientists have found that our brains appear to be hard-wired for empathy. Which suggests that feeling, not cognition, is the basis for moral action. That’s not to downplay the role cognition plays in moral behavior, but only to say the moral instinct appears to be pre-cognitive.
So how do we explain the Titanic vs. Lusitania results, then? Two ships, similar era, same passenger profile — but very different results. One set of passengers was altruistic, the other not. What explains this? Thoughts?

More from Beliefnet and our partners