Towards Understanding How Morality Works

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


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).





In-Group Loyalty



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.)

Reciprocal altruism


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.

Divinity Community Autonomy


In-Group Loyalty




Communal sharing

Authority ranking

Equality matching

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:

  • bodily contact,
  • commensal meals,
  • synchronized movement,
  • chanting or praying in unison,
  • shared emotional experiences,
  • common bodily ornamentation or mutilation,
  • mingling of bodily fluids in nursing,
  • sex,
  • blood rituals.
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

  • myths of shared ancestry,
  • descent from a patriarch,
  • rootedness in a territory,
  • relatedness to a totemic animal.
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.

(p. 631)

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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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Towards Understanding How Morality Works”

  1. Richard Shweder’s initial formulation – Divinity, Community, Autonomy – has a rough resemblance to the three categories identified by Ayn Rand: Faith (Witch Doctor), Force (Attila) & Reason. She rejected altruism, egalitarianism and multiculturalism in her ideology of individual freedom and “rational patriotism”. Both Shweder and Rand have implicit underlying dispositions arising from their experience as Jews within the larger American society, but these take different and interesting expressions.

    1. I’d rather address their analysis and research. Can you show how their “experience as Jews” has distorted that or set Haidt and Fiske on the wrong track?

  2. I always prefer to address research rather than personality. I don’t think the Jewish experience itself is so much a distortion as an implicit standpoint, i.e. that of a particular ethnic minority outsider who has not been born and bred in the majority Christian culture and thereby taking its norms for granted.

    Ayn Rand saw herself as an immigrant from Russia attracted by a society based on constitutional prescription, upholding the individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, i.e. a society of contracts; and her philosophy she expected to be judged solely on its 100% “rationalism”. However, her chief associates were mostly Jewish, and her “official successors” instinctively in the pro-Israel and pro-usury camp.

    Shweder himself has described his own early NY background which I think influences his outlook and its direction. All this is in most respects neither here nor there, as with Marx or Freud, Leon Trotsky or Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse or Peter Singer, since their works can and should be examined on their own merits or demerits, notwithstanding the tendency of many Jewish intellectuals to act as paradigm shifters rather than Gentile-tradition supporters (as argued by e.g. Kevin MacDonald in “Culture of Critique” [2002]).

  3. “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.”
    -Indeed. Most Palestinians weren’t born in Palestine, and most Israeli Jews were born in Israel.
    “Do we really want business interests to be shaping our moral views like that.”
    -Sure, if it’s a way of strategically removing irrationality like the above example was.
    “Are not their more “communal” ways of caring that do not bring “Market-Pricing” into the picture.”
    -Yeah, probably, but I don’t see the problem with market pricing here.

    I’d like to see more of these posts.

    Also, I thought the majority religion of Bali was Islam. Isn’t Indonesia a Muslim-majority country?

    1. Most Palestinians weren’t born in Palestine? Am I missing some sort of irony here?

      Someone else a little while ago expressed some view of Indonesia being a Muslim country as if that meant some sort of Islamic unity. Indonesia is a conglomerate of many different cultures and peoples with their respective histories. Bali is primarily Hindu — a kind of animistic Hinduism — overlaid thinly and only in patches with Islam. One sees the historical heritage markers of this as one approaches the eastern end of Java going towards Bali. Everywhere one walks in Bali one sees offerings to the various gods on footpaths outside shops and houses and at intersections and on trees and various poles — with statues of various gods everywhere — and every morning Balinese wearing sashes and sarongs to allow them to place these offerings with incense and prayers. To say Indonesia is a “Muslim country” obscures the reality that is so often hidden by any stereotypes.

      Balinese dancer — informally

      1. Bali is primarily Hindu — a kind of animistic Hinduism — overlaid thinly and only in patches with Islam.

        -Whoa! I guess I learn something new every day. I didn’t realize Indian influence in Southeast Asia was so lasting.

        Most Palestinians weren’t born in Palestine?

        -It’s true. 🙂 The Palestinian diaspora is much larger than the populations of Gaza and the West Bank combined.

  4. Very informative. Thankyou for the effort.

    Some thoughts……
    “in-group”and reciprocity—An in-group/tribe can also be understood as one that follows the same paradigm and moral values/customs/traditions….So the Yuan dynasty (Mongols) are considered “Chinese” because they took on Chinese customs but the Chinese Muslims (Hui) are not because their paradigm/customs are perceived as different……and today….this may also be the case in some societies with Muslims in the West…….The contentions that are going on in Russia and China as they try to grapple with these issues is interesting (Universality/identity vs morality/customs and how they contribute to shaping the unity of a nation/tribe…..Confucius humanism (Sate) vs Islam and Christianity in China and Orthodox Christianity, Islam vs the State in Russia)
    The idea of “Nation” (different peoples, traditions,customs but hold same citizenship”) provides for plurality in a geographically limited location but gives gives unity of identity–on the other hand tribal/ethnic (a group defined by its shared paradigms, values, customs…etc) such as religious grouping, provides for a global/trans-national plurality but does not transcend to universal identity (unity). It seems to me that as long as we see the world as in-group/out-group we cannot truly understand either equality or reciprocity. Our group identities can begin with our families but must end with all humanity as the “in-group”. “Bani Adam”—the idea that humanity is one family—and accept there may be differences in the human family just as there is diversity in our families.
    When there are no “other” how we evaluate moral dilemmas may be different—for example—a family lives on a limited budget—but their relatives (brothers, sisters and their spouses and children) come to the home seeking refuge—-how difficult is it going to be to turn them away… Yet—when thinking of immigration and immigrants as the “other”/out-group it becomes very easy to say—“close our doors”.
    Micheal Sandel (link below) gives an example of a brakeless train careening into a group of 5 people on one track and 1 individual on the other—the driver has the choice of killing 5 or 1—but the dilemma can become very different if one imagines the 1 person as a family member and the 5 as “other” or all 6 people as family members….
    It may not be pragmatic to reduce all moral dilemmas to a family level—but a framework that helps us think of all humanity as deserving of the same respect and reciprocity that we would give our brother may go a ways in promoting the idea of an equal value of all humanity. When we truly appreciate the equal value of all human beings, we will have a better grasp of Justice…

    Moral diversity/unity—“universal law” can be dangerous concept if used as justification to strip our world of moral diversity. It is a mistake to think of morality as universally “right”/”wrong” because context can change the degree of rightness/wrongness….
    (Micheal Sandel explores the issue in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBdfcR-8hEY)
    (Kevin Dutton wrote about the “wisdom of Psychopaths”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8EDgB1G57o)
    Yet, since human nature (and human aspirations and desires) is not that different, so, we cannot rule out universality of principles either. Universality of principles can have diversity of application because the paradigms, historical trajectories, and contexts may be different across time and geography…..(“meaning” vs utility)

    Indonesia, Islam, and animism—Silat/pencak silat, a martial arts, is an interesting example of how cultures influence (or appropriate from) each other—today silat is often thought by some Muslim practitioners as a “Muslim” martial arts….(reassigning “sacred values”/meaning)

    Another view of the intersection between business and ethco-moral values is what is called “Sharia banking” in the West…..
    One perspective of Islamic ethics may be to see it as having a system of categorizing morality/ethics into degrees from 1)Halal (permissible), 2)Mustahab (commendable), 3) wajib/fard (Duty/rights) 4) Makhroo–dissaproved but not unlawful, 5) Haram (prohibited). However, these categories can have exceptions—such as eating pork is “haram” unless you are starving and your life is in danger………in the West—the Halal/Haram debate is probably most prominent in food labeling—but within Islam it permeates other aspects of life—and recently there has been much activity in debating ethico-moral financial practices—however, because “Islam” is so geographically dispersed—this area has a diversity of views and contentions…..yet also a unity in the overall principles/paradigm….
    a sample perspective of how the debate is forming, the various ethical/moral issues, the different players and their various pov…contentions and agreements……..

        1. I was just illustrating the nature of deontological ethics. Commands, obligations, rules for their own sake — as opposed to, say, principles or actions followed for the greater good.

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