Towards Understanding Morality – another step?

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by Neil Godfrey

The previous post brought us to the point of explaining different moral perspectives in terms of different relational models (and broad themes of ethics and foundations). For example, marriages have been (and in places still are) understood within the framework of Authority relations. The wife remained under the authority of her father or more generally of the males of her family, or else under the authority of her husband.

How moral views are determined by relational models

From Andrew's Travel Blog
From Andrew’s Travel Blog

Western marriages have seen an evolution from this model to an Equality matching framework where the wife is understood to have equal rights with her husband and the husband has an obligation to share responsibilities (e.g. child minding, housework) with her equally. In other cultures Equality matching has seen the bartering and selling of wives for goods (e.g. thirty pigs) considered to be of equivalent value.

Where the Authority Ranking model has been replaced by a Communal Sharing one some wives complain that their work is not appreciated. The “not keeping tabs” of who owes what is thought to have resulted in their efforts being taken for granted. We also see the Rational-Legal model at work where contracts are signed at the outset of a marriage to clarify processes with respect to children and property in the event of the marriage not lasting.

In each of these relational models the different treatments of the wife are understood to be perfectly moral. What is right and wrong depends on the relational framework through which one views the “resources” in question. Morality rules. One cannot say that either trading a wife for thirty pigs or or obliging the married woman to continue living with her family is “immoral” in the minds of those who follow these customs.

One reason I think that the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent to the crime of murder is because those who kill very often see themselves as carrying out a truly moral act. Their victims thoroughly deserved to die. Some cultures have expected family or inner-group members to personally avenge the killing of one of their own and viewed failure to do so as a moral failing. Other cultures frame murder in a Market pricing relation and a victim’s family will accordingly accept monetary compensation. Others choose to leave the punishment of the crime to the state — evidence of Authority ranking determining the relevant relational model.

Where do Human Rights enter the picture?

Pinker’s discussion in these pages left several questions hanging from my perspective. I alluded to some (e.g. the failure to draw conclusions relating to alternative visions for future moral progress) towards the end of my previous post.

Another lack (to the best of my recollection at the moment) was the failure to address (at least in any depth) the fact that at any one time people can be negotiating their relations in more than one relationship model. (Recall I have not read Pinker’s source material so I stand to be corrected on this by anyone who does know more.) Indeed, the tension arising from this fact is surely the source of moral changes in society (both for better and for worse).

An example would be where a moral value long and widely established in a community (e.g. the need to execute adulterers) conflicts with a moral value of a few members who also see themselves as belonging to the wider community of global humanity. The latter may feel a conflict between communal values and the principles of universal human rights and be determined to see that the latter replace the former.

Today many people are engaged in trying to sort out traditional attitudes towards homosexuality in the context of human rights values of autonomy and equality matching.

In this context I think Pinker makes a simplistic error when he reaches the topic of taboos in the following statement:

A recognition that someone belongs to a different culture can mitigate, to some extent, the outrage ordinarily triggered by the violation of a relational model. Such violations can even be a source of humor, as in old comedies in which a hapless immigrant or rural bumpkin haggles over the price of a train ticket, grazes his sheep in a public park, or offers to settle a debt by betrothing his daughter in marriage. . . . . .

Tolerance may run out, however, when a violation breaches a sacred value, as when immigrants to Western countries practice female genital cutting, honor killings, or the sale of underage brides, and when Westerners disrespect the prophet Muhammad by depicting him in novels, satirizing him in editorial cartoons, or allowing schoolchildren to name a teddy bear after him.

Pinker 2011, p. 632

This example unfortunately overlooks a couple of facts. One is that the majority of Muslims do not live in a primitive communal (tribal) relationship cut off from any other relationship model. As with many Jews and Christians, some ethical ideals (ideal in the eyes of their holy books etc) are relegated to a lesser or delayed status in preference for more immediate and dominant wider social relations that value tolerance and live-and-let-live (e.g. Autonomy, Fairness, Equality Matching). As with many immigrants throughout history, sometimes it takes a full generation or more for assimilation in this sense to become the norm.

Mohamed Bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi (Wikipedia)

Another fact overlooked is that historians, sociologists and no doubt social psychologists and anthropologists, too, well understand the concept of the spark that ignites an explosion or the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Where frustrations build up in one relational model then it may take only the slightest provocation for an offence in another area to get completely out of hand and next thing we find we are witnessing a revolution, a riot, a war. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor in Tunisia who immolated himself over issues of Fairness, sparked a chain of events known as the Arab Spring. The Arab world was protesting much more than the lack of fair treatment that Mouazizi experienced.

Ditto with terrorism in recent decades. It has been easy for many people to hear one message or framing of a message promulgated by the perpetrators of these murderous crimes and to ignore other claims that are more difficult to think through. Something unsavoury is at work on both sides.

Whence Dehumanization, Genocide and other Mass Killings?

This brings us to a significant point of Fiske’s, the point at which we dehumanize the outsider:

Human beings, Fiske notes, need not relate to one another using any of the models at all, a state he calls a null or asocial relationship. People who don’t fall under a relational model are dehumanized: they are seen as lacking the essential features of human nature and are treated, in effect, like inanimate objects which may be ignored, exploited, or preyed upon at will. An asocial relationship thus sets the stage for the predatory violence of conquest, rape, assassination, infanticide, strategic bombing, colonial expulsions, and other crimes of convenience.

(Pinker 2011, p. 634)

Pinker observes how each of the relational models can turn its members into murderous thugs when offended by the outsiders.

Placing other people under the aegis of a relational model imposes at least some obligation to take their interests into account. Communal Sharing has sympathy and warmth built into it—but only for members of the in-group. Fiske’s collaborator Nick Haslam has argued that Communal Sharing can lead to a second kind of dehumanization: not the mechanistic dehumanization of an asocial relationship, but an animalistic dehumanization that denies to outsiders the traits that are commonly perceived as uniquely human, such as reason, individuality, self-control, morality, and culture. Rather than being treated with callousness or indifference, such outsiders are treated with disgust or contempt.

Communal Sharing may encourage this dehumanization because the excluded people are seen as lacking the pure and sacred essence that unites the members of the tribe, and thereby they threaten to pollute it with their animal contaminants.

So Communal Sharing, for all its cuddly connotations, supports the mindset behind genocidal ideologies based on tribe, race, ethnicity, and religion.

(pp. 634-635)

Then there’s Authority Ranking :

Authority Ranking also has two sides. It brings a paternalistic responsibility to protect and support one’s underlings, and thus may be the psychological basis of the Pacification Process in which overlords protect their subject peoples from internecine violence. In a similar way, it furnishes the moral rationalizations employed by slaveholders, colonial overlords, and benevolent despots.

But Authority Ranking also justifies violent punishment for insolence, insubordination, disobedience, treason, blasphemy, heresy, and lèse-majesté. When welded to Communal Sharing, it justifies group-over-group violence, including imperial and jingoistic conquest and the subjugation of subordinate castes, colonies, and slaves.

(p. 635)

Pinker’s not insignificant oversight, I believe (and from a few recent comments I know I’m a relative latecomer to this observation), is that he overlooks the violence of the all-powerful world super-state since WW2 and 1991, mistaking that State’s structure for a Democratic one. The reality is of course quite different as many serious analysts have made clear and as many lay people intuitively know and demonstrate by their disenchantment with the supposedly democratic processes. Authority Ranking (elites that some even refer to as an “oligarchy”) is welded to a nationalistic communal shared identity, in large part by means of mass media (“the manufacture of consent”).

Equality matching

More benevolent is the obligation of reciprocal exchange in Equality Matching, which gives each party a stake in the continued existence and well-being of the other. Equality Matching also encourages a modicum of perspective-taking, which, as we have seen, can turn into genuine sympathy. The pacifying effect of commerce between individuals and nations may depend on a mindset in which exchange partners, even if they are not genuinely loved, are at least valued. On the other hand, Equality Matching supplies the rationale for tit-for-tat retaliation: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, blood for blood. As we saw in chapter 8, even people in modern societies are apt to conceive of criminal punishment as just deserts rather than as general or specific deterrence.

(p. 635)


Rational-Legal reasoning, the add-on to the moral repertoire in literate and numerate societies, does not come with its own intuitions or emotions, and by itself neither encourages nor discourages violence. Unless all people are explicitly enfranchised and granted ownership of their own bodies and property, the amoral pursuit of profit in a market economy can exploit them in slave markets, human trafficking, and the opening of foreign markets with gunboats. And the deployment of quantitative tools can be used to maximize kill ratios in the waging of high-tech war. 

(p. 635)

As to whether there is malevolence, that depends on the ethical question I raised. . . : to repeat, how do we rank murder (which treats the victim as a human) with quite consciously killing a great number of people, but not caring, because we treat them as we do ants when we walk down the street: the al-Shifa case?

And a further question.  How do we regard citizens of the country that carried out this atrocity who seek to provide some justification in terms of clearly non-existent altruistic intentions. (Noam Chomsky in response to Sam Harris)

Or as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, human lives do not even need to enter the balance of pros and cons when deciding whether or not to drop a cruise missile on a pharmaceutical plant in Al-Shifa, Sudan or in deciding to enforce severe economic sanctions on developing countries. The actions are not “immoral” in the sense that their actors maliciously plot to take actions that will result in horrific death tolls. The human costs are simply not tabled or brought into the decision making process at all, except, perhaps, in a minimal way as mere cost-statistics.

Pinker identifies the values of Fascism, Feudalism, Theocracy and Communism with the relational models of Communal Sharing and Authority Ranking. (Communism adds a third: Equality Matching.) His message is that all of these have failed and we are now left with the leadership of a Liberal Democracy for which values associated with Autonomy and Rational-Legal relational models are dominant.

The point is debatable. What I have wanted to set out in this post are illustrations of how different moral values can be understood to be associated with the various relational models. I think the situation is not as clear-cut as my memory of Pinker’s discussion sets out and that sometimes our mixed loyalties to different models do come into play.

The next notable point Pinker makes is that taboos are not really absolutely sacred but that they are “pseudo-sacred” and there is room for seeing eye to eye even in conflicts in this arena. That’s for a future post, perhaps my next one.



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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “Towards Understanding Morality – another step?”

  1. “amoral pursuit of profit”—seems an amusingly mild turn of phrase, when one thinks of “the Butcher” Leopold II and his “enterprise” in the Congo, sometimes called the “African Holocaust”, Death estimates range from 3 million to 30 million—though most tend to stick with the number 10 million killed (murdered).1885-1912.

    Mass Murder is not just a European thing—The Chinese might top that list —but then, they do have a very long history…and a lot of people……The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864) estimated to have killed between 12 to 20 million—is an interesting case of the misuse of “Christianity” (apparently, the leader of the rebellion claimed he was a younger brother of Jesus—???)—though the underlying political, economic, and climatic factors probably played a larger role….

    People who see the humanity—It may seem that one person or a few people can cause a lot of death and destruction….but one person or a few people can also turn the tide (or at least help put on the brakes)—During the brutal Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese(approx 300,000 killed)–the American and Europeans (numbering only about 20) established a “safety zone” and risked their lives to save the Chinese….or Bartolome de Casas —A Christian eyewitness to the Spanish slaughter of the “American Indians” (example—Taino genocide (approx 3 million)1492-1518) who became an advocate for the rights of these native peoples.

    Nelson Mandela believed that hate has to be taught (manufactured). —Maybe this is an important point—that human beings are not predisposed to hate—that it has to be manufactured? When Anti-Muslim sentiment began to appear in the U.S.—IMO, the Japanese-American community first sounded the warning of what was happening because they had been through the same procedure….and this early warning may have prevented a much worse situation? At any rate—a few people can make a difference…so we should do whatever little bit we can to help make this world a better place.

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