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?
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.
|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.
Sure we understand and prize an ethical system focused on the protection of the rights of individuals. We understand fairness, justice and avoidance of harm. But when we expand our vision we see that there are many other fields of morality that have deep meanings for others.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in exploring the emotional character of moral questions, realized that very often people will react strongly to the thought of certain “immoral acts” (e.g. eating a pet dog that had been killed by a car; a brother and sister voluntarily deciding to have protected sex; cleaning a toilet with one’s national flag that had been discarded; breaking a vow to one’s grandmother to visit her grave; buying a dead chicken to have sex with it) but when pressed to explain why it is immoral, they are flummoxed.
“I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”
Haidt slightly modified Shweder’s three-fold classification by breaking Community and Autonomy into two distinct moral foundations each. He also replaced Divinity with the more all inclusive “Purity/Sanctity” concept. All five moral foundations are applicable in modern Western societies (as well as more broadly).
Fairness / Reciprocity
Revulsion to incest, bestiality, eating of the family pet.
Prohibits from burning American flag.
Duty to visit mother’s grave
Cultivation of kindness and compassion; inhibition of cruelty and aggression
(applies to a generic someone rather than to in-group friends and relatives who are standard beneficiaries of caring.)
Anthropologist Alan Fiske proposes a relational model as the foundation of our moral compartments. That is, it is relationships of different kinds that are viewed as the basis of different kinds of morality. Each of us belongs to different relationships — family, work or social, national or tribal, etc.
The table shows how it sits beside Shweder’s and Haidt’s classifications. The details include the evolutionary roots and neurological hardware behind the moral workings in each of the relational models.
The respective relations are the sources of morality; each model is a distinct way people conceive relationships and the different moral rules follow.
Market Pricing / Rational-Legal
|Group is conceived as one flesh, united by a common essence, which must be safeguarded against contamination.
|Linear hierarchy defined by dominance, status, age, gender, size, strength, wealth, precedence
|Basis of our sense of fairness and our intuitive economics. Binds us as neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, trading partners rather than as bosom buddies or brothers-in-arms.
|System of currency, prices, rents, salaries, benefits, interest, credit, derivatives that power a modern economy. Depends on numbers, mathematical formulas, accounting, digital transfers, language of formal contracts.
|Freely share resources within the group, keeping no tabs on who gives or takes how much.
|Entitles superiors to take what they want and to receive tribute from inferiors, and to command their obedience and loyalty.
|Schemes to divide resources equitably: tit-for-tat reciprocity, turn-taking, coin-flipping, matching contributions, division into equal portions, verbal formulas like eeny-meeny miney-moe.
|Rituals of bonding and merging reinforce the intuition of unity. Rituals such as:
|Obligates those in authority to a paternalistic, pastoral or noblesse oblige responsibility to protect those under them.
|Primitive tribes engage in rituals of exchange of useless gifts (cf our Christmas fruitcakes) solely to cement Equality Sharing relationships.
|The unity is rationalized with
|Communality evolved from maternal care, kin selection, mutualism.
|Evolved from primate dominance hierarchies.
|Few animals engage in this though chimpanzees know it when they are shortchanged.
|Not Universal — since it depends on literacy, numeracy, other recent information technologies.
|May be implemented in part by the oxytocin system.
|May be implemented in part by testosterone-sensitive circuits.
|Parts of the brain that register intentions, cheating, conflict, perspective-taking, calculation, which include the insula, orbital cortex, cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, temporoparietal junction.
The “Rational-Legal” relationship is Steven Pinker’s concept preference over Fiske’s “Market-Pricing” relationship. I don’t completely understand why Fiske views this relationship as distinct from the “fairness” and “equality” relationship and I’d need to go beyond Pinker’s summary to study Fiske’s analyses in depth to do so. So I’m just presenting it all here “as is”.
The moral universals
The point of these classifications or “grammars” is to demonstrate common patterns in human morality underlying the wide diversities we observe across cultures and throughout changing historical periods.
These models explain how it is that our moral reasoning is always compartmentalised. (No society, as we know, runs on a simple standard “golden rule” or “categorical imperative” universal that works for all situations.)
Each moralized norm is a compartment that contains:
- a relational model
- one or more social roles (parent, child, teacher, student, husband, wife, supervisor, employee, customer, neighbour, stranger)
- a context (home, street, school, workplace)
- and a resource (food, money, land, housing, time, advice, sex, labor).
(Pinker 2011, p. 629)
A socially competent person has assimilated a large number of these norms. So for example, two friends will generally enjoy a “communal relationship” in which they share alike without keeping a record of how much each gives, and so forth. But they know that they will adjust their relationship in different circumstances. So when going on a holiday together, they know that an “equality matching” relationship kicks in and that they will be sure to share the petrol costs 50-50. In special circumstances where a special skill is required, say, they may enter an authority ranking relationship.
Infractions of the rules of each relational model are moralized as wrong-doing.
But if one tries to apply the rules of one relational model to another, one can look silly, gauche. A traveller to a foreign country may be quickly noticed as “not getting” the rules. Normally hosts will be very forgiving the neophyte or stranger. The Hundred Foot Journey has a funny scene where an Indian newly arrived in France attempts to bargain the overnight room accommodation price at a hotel.
The models help us understand why we have such strong moralized emotions and why we have moral compartmentalization. It is not too difficult to understand how some of these could well have been part of our evolutionary inheritance.
Taboos (gods, family, land)
But sometimes if it is a taboo that is violated, even by a stranger, people may be less forgiving. On one of my trips to Bali I was enjoying the spectacle of a local religious ceremony at a main street intersection when I noticed a small enclave for one of their very many statues of a god of some sort that would give me a much better view of the proceedings. Someone had left a dustpan, bucket and broom in that same area so I reasoned that it could not be considered a sacred spot at all and it would be safe for me to stand in there for a much better view of the ceremony. But as soon as I entered a couple of women taking part angrily signalled me to move out. Ignorance was clearly no excuse in such matters. I did not feel it appropriate to try to argue or ask why cleaning materials could be disposed there.
But taboos are fraught with much more serious moments than my little gaffe occasioned. One does not even think of selling one’s child — unless. A Westerner asked to do so would be horrified.
The psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. To maintain precious relationships, it is not enough for us to say and do the right thing. We also have to show that our heart is in the right place, that we don’t weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. When you are faced with an indecent proposal, anything less than an indignant refusal would betray the awful truth that you don’t understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen. And that understanding consists of having absorbed a cultural norm that assigns a sacred value to a primal relational model.
(Pinker 2011, p. 630)
Pinker gives the example of life insurance. When the idea was first introduced people were scandalized that anyone could suggest assigning a money value to a life, “and of allowing wives to bet that their husbands wold die”. Today most of us consider life insurance to be a responsible and caring option but for that change in moral viewpoint to happen the companies selling life-insurance had to reframe their product. It had to be moved from the “taboo” or “contamination” end of the Communal relationship to the “caring and providing” end.
Pinker’s example raises concerns for me. Do we really want business interests to be shaping our moral views like that. Are not their more “communal” ways of caring that do not bring “Market-Pricing” into the picture. But I digress.
Pinker explains further:
The art of politics, Tetlock points out, is in large part the ability to reframe taboo tradeoffs as tragic tradeoffs (or, when one is in the opposition, to do the opposite). A politician who wants to reform Social Security has to reframe it from “breaking our faith with senior citizens” (his opponent’s framing) to “lifting the burden on hardworking wage-earners” or “no longer scrimping in the education of our children.” Keeping troops in Afghanistan is reframed from “putting the lives of our soldiers in danger” to “guaranteeing our nation’s commitment to freedom” or “winning the war on terror.” Keeping troops in Afghanistan is reframed from “putting the lives of our soldiers in danger” to “guaranteeing our nation’s commitment to freedom” or “winning the war on terror.” The reframing of sacred values, as we will see, may be an overlooked tactic in the psychology of peacemaking.
In another place he homes in on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Both sides are said to attach a moral value to the land such that it is a sacred or taboo resource for both. Again I sense some unease with Pinker’s “equalizing” the moral stance of the two sides like this so that it looks like a morally intractable conundrum. In fact, however, the relation of one side with the land is most fundamentally that of literal home while the other side’s relation to the land is through sacred myth. (Land in addition, of course, entails relations other than the spiritual or cultural — e.g. those pertaining to economics, livelihoods, and in particular power or dominance.)
So Pinker’s lessons in the scholarship towards understanding morality is helping me to see how steps can be taken to understanding different moral points of view. But this is just the first part and much more is to be covered. Will continue in the next post.
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