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