Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Morality Across Cultures Part 1

My semester project in my language and culture class is on the meaning of morality across cultural groups. This projects includes a presentation in class with a handout and a five to seven page paper. I am also writing another paper that will explore the impact of language on culture change. But the one I am rather geeked on is the morality paper. The following is the handout for my presentation.

U.S. American Society

Morality in U.S. society tends to be very relativistic. There is no set standard moral frame for U.S. Americans. Even on the individual level, moral frames tend to be ever changing, ever evolving with the experience of the individual. And public figures in the U.S. are often hypocritical about their morality, so much of the language surrounding morality is very cynical.


While there is a great deal of variety across the many sects of Christianity, with very few exceptions those sects tend to have a dogmatic approach to morality. Morality is generally pretty clearly defined and is nothing short of divine law. While there is a little room for relativist interpretations, that is minimal. The congregation and often to a stronger degree, the leadership of the church has a role in policing moral behavior. The language of most Christian and indeed most religious moral framing is couched in absolutes.


With the single unifying factor being a lack of belief in gods and the supernatural, atheists do not have a unified view of morality. Indeed some atheists believe that morality is nothing more than a religious construct. Others might believe that their are objective moral truths - some of whom also believing science can lead us to those truths. And there are atheists, myself included, who believe that morality is entirely relative to time, space, culture and the individual. It should be noted that within these three overarching viewpoints, there is a great deal of variety.

Korean Society

Korean society tends towards a very strict, dogmatic moral idealism. The language that Koreans use to discuss moral issues carries a firm reverence for tradition. Instead of being religiously driven, it carries the weight of history - of "the way it has always been done." While it doesn't carry the force of law, deviation from the moral dogma carries very serious social consequences. And Korean moral dogma also tends to speak to the rules of all the aspects of Korean social interactions.

When it comes to most any aboriginal peoples, the language of morality deviates rather drastically from that of developed, state based cultures. To whit, unlike state based cultures aboriginal cultures rarely even have a word to describe morality or even a system of rules or laws. There is no need for such defined sets of rules, because ultimately there are few rules and what rules there are are often times contextually dependent.

Efe pygmies (Ituri Forest, Congo)

The Efe people are quite reminiscent of the early Russians who lived in Mirs. They do not own property, implements used for day to day life being communally owned and used. The idea of "right" and "wrong" is entirely bound in what needs to be done to ensure the survival of the group. When the group perceives an individual acting outside the best interest of the group, the first line of "enforcement" is shame and gossip. Failing that, an elder or several elders may take the person aside. Ultimately, if the problems persist, the person will be banished. But problems rarely make it past shaming.

iKung! people (Northern Kalahari)

Really, the only difference between the Efe people and the iKung! people (or Bushmen), is that the iKung! people are not quite as communal. People in the hunter/gatherer bands of the iKung! people actually own their tools and adornments. This does not mean that tools aren't loaned to others on occasion, it just means that they are only used by others at the sufferance of the owner.

I would just like to leave you with an important understanding of moral relativism. Understanding that different people have different moral frames, doesn't mean that we must accept the moral frames of others as valid. Each of us have our own beliefs about what is right and wrong and respond to moral dilemmas in our own ways. The very nature of a belief in right and wrong, in what is moral versus what is immoral, is what we believe. When others act in a way that I believe is immoral, it doesn't matter what they believe about the morality of their actions - I believe that they are committing an immoral act.

I would like to thank Greg Laden PhD for his willingness to be interviewed about the Efe Pygmies. And I would like to thank Michael Murphy PhD for his willingness to be interviewed about the iKung! people. I will post the full bibliography when I post the actual paper. I would also note that my interviews with Greg and Mike will also be used as references for my other paper.

No comments: