Monday, April 26, 2010

Morality Across Cultures Part 3

I have noticed something rather interesting in my exploration of morality across cultures. Namely that in more collectivist cultures (and subcultures) morality seems more strongly idealized, moral frames are more uniform and outwardly seems held to more stringently than in more individualistic cultures. This makes a lot of sense, given the nature of collectivist societies and I imagine is probably even documented.

Unfortunately it is exceedingly difficult to wade through the literature on moral decision making processes, because the vast majority of research in this area is in the context of business and law. This means that researchers are generally looking at very narrow ethical issues that may or may not translate to life outside the context of workplace. Or they are looking at narrow ethical issues in the context of how members of another culture treat outsiders - again, issues that may or may not - likely do not translate into how members of that culture treat each other.

I have found a few nuggets of research that would imply my observation is correct, but they do not leave room for generalization. This is definitely something that I think is worth exploring, because I think the answer is probably a very important piece of the puzzle that is the formation of our moral frames. The reason I think this could be very important is due to some observations of the largely hunter/gatherer aboriginal cultures I have learned something about. I will admit that this is pure speculation and that based on the accounts of westerners who have visited these cultures.

Egalitarian social structures are pretty much collectivist by nature. While there are certainly individuals with their individual traits, at a certain level of interdependence collectivism is the default. What I think it very interesting about this, is the expression of what westerners call morality in these egalitarian cultures. There isn't a list of rules to follow. Rather, there are the things that one must do to ensure the survival of the group. There are ways that one should treat others. But these are not issues that really need speaking of - rather they are integral to the culture to the extent that they become defined through observation and in some cases (probably most or all) they are part of the language.

In these aboriginal cultures divergence from the "moral" framework of the society is exceedingly rare. When it does pop up, the resulting gossiping and shaming usually cuts it off quickly. Failing that, there is discussion with elders to bring one in line making the final option, banishment, virtually nonexistent. There is not so much as idealization of this framework, as there is the understanding that life exists within this framework. There is not so much rigid adherence to this frame as there is a lack of anything else with which the group can function. In essence, daily life embodies the "moral" frame of hunter/gatherer societies. And within a group of (usually) thirty or less people, adherence isn't just an outward appearance.

With hierarchy and division of labors, comes room for that adherence to become affectation. The more complex the hierarchy, the more complex the division of labors, the more room is created for deviation - even if that deviance must be secret.

What I think is so very interesting about this, is that if I am correct, it potentially has a lot to tell us about the nature of our moral frames and how they are developed. It may also teach us a great deal about what morality really is at it's core and what can be generalized about morality. I also suspect that if it is true, this will have a lot to teach us about cognitive processes. At the very least it is rather interesting...

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