January 22, 2008

Universal morals

Are you ready to stretch your mind today?

My "google-alert" for all things cross-cultural led me to this blog by Fawad, a techie based in California whose profile quote reads: "I have always imagined Paradise to be a kind of library" - Jorge Luis Borges

I have copied some of the post for you and strongly encourage anyone interested in cross-cultural differences to click through to the NY Times Magazine article below.

From the post:
"Steven Pinker, the hard to label Harvard Evolutionary Psycholgist is amongst one of the best examples of current scientists who can write well for a broader audience. This post was precipitated after reading his excellent essay titled "The Moral Instinct" in the January 13th, 2008 issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It is hard to summarize the breadth of the essay's argument but in it Pinker explains the existing evidence for the biological (evolutionary) underpinnings of our morality. He examines many interesting examples about the universality of morals and tries to square them with the clearly observed differences across cultures. The essay is somewhat long but I couldn't recommend it any more strongly and urge people to read it. There are few popular pieces of writing that engage this deeply in reflecting on the sources of our deeply held moral beliefs.

When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.
The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.


All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

Any thoughts?
I need a day to ponder...
a domani,


Jennifer said...

I read that article! I agree with the blogger: it was long, but worth it. (I'll admit I skimmed some bits)

It had an "oh duh" effect on me. You know, when you read something and it is so new and yet so obvious at the same time that you wonder how you hadn't thought of that before.

Jadie said...

Being an American, I preface this comment by saying I am a product of my culture. I'm not religious, I'm a feminist, a mid-life woman, I have raised children and worked as a psychotherapist. I have come to think that the primary human value is the golden rule. That all differences of culture, and the many variants of the "five constructs" are subsumed by this. I see many problems as the clash of cultures regarding what behaviors the golden rule is calling for!

Anonymous said...

Children aged eight in catechsm class getting themselves in shape for their first communion always would say: WE KNOW THAT, whenever I dared to suggest the proper way of behaving, based on quite universally shared rules. But as one child wisely pointed out: knowing how one should behave is only the beginning ... as he sighed and bowed his head.

Jonathan Kroner said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I enjoy your blog and I've also been pondering the Pinker article, with many re-readings over the past few months. I really enjoy this simplistic model that allows me to characterize various beliefs and behaviors within the context of those five moral "primary colors" and I've been trying to think of a way to adapt it to my cross-cultural trainings.
On the other hand, I have two major problems with the model.
First, the model gives equal weight to the big five (avoid harm, fairness, community/group loyalty, authority and purity), which may be so in terms of brain function, but I believe it needs to go further. A useful analogy for me is a biologist studying healthy cells and cancer cells might say "cells is cells" in terms of the analytical methods used to understand them. Ultimately, the reason to better understand cancer cells is to inhibit their their growth. But Pinker leaves the ranking of the moral spheres to "culture."
But science can do better. I would hope that the zealous expression of the brain drives for "authority" and "purity" that result in the harm to school teachers who misname a teddy bear should eventually be recognized as vestigial and less worthy as moral spheres in today's world.
The other area in which I have difficulty is fitting in the role of rationality and the impact of what Pinker refers to as "those with blunted emotions." I understand Pinker's thesis that each of these big five originate from an emotion/brain function which are later rationalized. Although I like to think of myself as rational and utilitarian, Pinker's model leaves me in the same category as psychopaths and those with damage to their frontal lobes.
Nonetheless, it's a useful model for those of us who endeavor to show others universals among cultures.
Jonathan Kroner