Ingredients of Morality?

A recent New York Times magazine article, The Moral Instinct, touches on issues near and dear to my Unitarian Universalist heart; different ideas of morality. The article discusses how human beings are somewhat hardwired to have a moral code. However, just what that morality can entail can vary wildy from culture to culture, but most ideas of cultural wrongs can be boiled down to violations of a few different kinds of taboos:

Harm: Doing harm to others, the idea of hitting someone for example.

Fairness: An idea that people should act honestly, and not cheat others.

Community: Be it to a family, club, or nationality, a loyalty to a group identity.

Authority: Parental figures, bosses, policeman, all individuals we’re reluctant to defy.

Purity: An avoidance of contamination with some corrupting force.

While these taboos are taken from one researcher, the article uses them to demonstrate that any one culture, and in fact even individuals within that culture can hold different things in different regard. A culture may not personally worry about what people do in their own homes (Purity), but any questioning of the power structure will result in brutal retaliation (Authority). A culture may have a casual disregard for life (Harm), but fraud and other forms of deception are highly punished (Fairness). On a scary individual level, someone may have a strong sense of ‘Community’, such that interlopers who don’t ‘fit in’ are excluded from the protection from the ‘Harm’ taboo. That individual may be able to lynch a black man. Similarly, soldiers can be trained to kill ‘the enemy’ when they would find the idea of hurting someone from their own nation repugnant.

Why I found this particularly interesting is that people from their childhood can be conditioned to react in certain ways. People in some households may have the word ‘gay’, for example, tagged in their brains to a certain psychological revulsion that can’t simply be explained away. No amount of explanation on the part of those people trying to convince them that being gay doesn’t make them evil or wrong may be able to erase that revulsion. It’s not a matter of logic, or even necessarily belief. Even if one were to intellectually accept something as not immoral, they may not be able to stop their own ingrained reactions. True slightly off-topic example: I know my wife makes good omelettes, but I just can’t stop myself from gagging at the smell. I know that omelettes are not bad for me, I know they won’t do me harm, but I just can’t help myself.

We all have different ideas about what may or may not be immoral, and I know I’ve spent at least a good chunk of my life arguing some of those points in my usual style of methodical point by point discussion, which rarely gets me anywhere, to my dismay, so reading this article depressed me in some ways and cheered me up in others, because it helps me maybe understand things a little better. It makes some negative political advertising make a lot more sense now, one candidate trying to tie the other to one of the immoral red flags that generates the disgust reaction. It reinforces that just explaining how tolerance is good, and even theoretically having that idea universally accepted or adopted into law would not be enough to ensure real tolerance. For me it also adds a different dimension for how others react to things, and suddenly makes me self-conscious as a father for what I might be instilling in my daughter.

-posted by matthewsayre


4 Responses to Ingredients of Morality?

  1. derepi says:

    The linked article is a long one, but it’s well-worth reading through to the end.

    One oft-stated reason to have tolerance laws (Authority) is to invoke fairness and threaten harm, with an eye towards changing the community’s belief about the purity of a given act or condition. Over time, the impure nature of the act will erode, and fairness will ascend. Look at voting laws, for example, or Title IX.

    Arguably, the abortion debate can be framed in these terms. Anti-choice people want to punish (harm) women for their impure actions: those wanton women did the dirty deed, and now they should pay. Pro-choicers want fairness to dominate: those women are members of our families and neighborhoods, and enforcing special punishment on them is unjust.

    Both sides ignore the opposing argument. Anti-choicers ignore fairness by insisting that only women should be punished for sex, and pro-choicers ignore purity by claiming that sex is not an inherently impure act.

    Both sides try to co-opt community: the anti-choicers try to ascribe personhood to a parasitic clump of cells, while the pro-choicers emphasize the rights of the women who are already people.

  2. Dana says:

    I think what I found most interesting from the article, based on having read this post first, was that it really isn’t all that nurture over nature oriented. What Pinker seems to be indicating is that everyone seems to be imbued (by nature) with the same set of those 5 moral definition types, but what changes due to nurture is how individuals learn to weight the different definitions, as derepi was getting into with her comparisons of how pro-choice vs. anti-choice people weight Purity and Fairness differently.

    He says this should give us hope that, through this understanding, we can find better ways to identify and compromise with people who have different moral weightings. I suspect that derepi’s example begins to show how that is perhaps overly optimistic. Seems relevant to the current political activities going on in the US right now. Unfortunately, this information may just end up being a way for us who read the article to mentally categorize what people are disagreeing over.

  3. Dana says:

    Here are some other blogs I ran across that commented on that article, too:

    Alas, a blog


  4. […] So all this leads to an interesting question: What kind of experience is important in a presidential candidate? Or rather, what qualities are important in a person who will run our country, and what kind of past actions will show experience using them? Where do we want to see experience, and where do we want to see open-mindedness? (Hmmm, are the different answers likely to result from that question likely to fall along party lines, like the morality measures?) […]

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