Daily Archives: 2015-08-10 13:08:49 GMT+0000

Towards Understanding How Morality Works

We are not the only social animals with rules of behaviour we must follow or risk some form of punishment but our moral systems are surely the most complex. How does it all work? I’d like to think that we can figure it out enough to help us understand what’s going on when two sides are at loggerheads, each convinced of its own moral stance while accusing the other of amorality or immorality. How is it that we are so divided over what’s right and wrong on questions of race, religion, the poor, criminal punishment, war and history and what is it that brings about such irreconcilable convictions?

The Golden Rule
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. (Confucius)
Do to others what you want them to do to you. (Jesus)
The Categorical Imperative
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. (Immanuel Kant)

We’ve heard that some form of the Golden Rule is known in many cultures but as Steven Pinker points out in Better Angels,

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative.

Life is more complex to allow this to be the sole guide. In Brown’s list of human universals we find proscriptions against murder, rape, incest between mother and son and stinginess. After that we veer into increasingly rough and tumble terrain. In one community a woman can be purchased to become a man’s wife for a number of pigs. That custom is as moral, as legitimate, as a land purchase. In fact, selling land according to some communities can be a capital crime.

The Golden Rule and Categorical Imperative can have radically different applications in different cultures.

So what is morality all about? To complete Pinker’s quote:

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative. Instead, morality consists in respecting or violating one of the relational models (or ethics or foundations):

  • betraying, exploiting or subverting a coalition;
  • contaminating oneself or a community;
  • defying or insulting a legitimate authority;
  • harming someone without provocation;
  • taking a benefit without paying the cost;
  • peculating funds or abusing prerogatives.

(Pinker 2011, p. 628. My formatting in all quotations)

What interests me are those “relational models (or ethics or foundations)” said to be at the core of our moral sense. My source is for most part Steven Pinker’s introduction to them (2011).

Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder has concluded that across every society humanity’s moral norms revolve around one of three common themes: the ethics of divinity, of community and of autonomy.

Divinity Community Autonomy
The world is composed of a divine essence, portions of which are housed in bodies that are part of god. The world is a collection of tribes, clans, families, institutions, guilds and other coalitions. The social world is composed of individuals.
Purpose of morality is to protect this spirit from degradation and contamination. People do not have right to do what they want with their soul-container bodies. Obligation to avoid polluting body with impure sex, food, other physical pleasures. (Underlies moralization of disgust and valorization of purity and asceticism. Morality is equated with duty, respect, loyalty, interdependence. Purpose of morality is to allow them to exercise their choices and protect them from harm.

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