Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Morality Across Cultures Part 4

The Language of Morality:
A Cross Culture & Social Structure Comparison

Morality is pretty simple really. It is the framework we use to distinguish right from wrong and thus govern our behavior as we interact with other people and the world around us. It seems fairly straightforward really, but like many commonsensical concepts it is far more complicated than common sense would imply. Morality has been at the heart of innumerable debates, raging arguments, violent confrontations, wars and even genocides since our earliest ancestors first developed language. This paper will explore the language and conception of morality in certain cultural and social contexts and attempt to begin the journey towards a less contentious moral paradigm.

All people are, to some degree or another, ethnocentric. This is not always a bad thing, but it all too often leads to rather significant logical fallacies. There are few contexts where this is more frequent and more contentious than in the context of morality. Good and evil, right and wrong are core components of every person's identity. Morality is a core component of every person's identity.

Ultimately the development of individual moral frames is quite complicated. The general perception of many people is that morality comes from one's culture and/or one's god. Whether it is theistic in nature or is just culturally developed, generally people use the term "morality" assuming that whoever they are talking to knows exactly what they mean. Quite often people assume that whoever they are talking to or dealing with has a moral frame that is very similar or exactly the same as their own.

Religion is very likely the prime progenitor of this idea of universal morality. When early humans turned to a conception of gods and extranatural phenomena to explain how the world works and why, divine/spiritual retribution was a natural part of conception. If some thing or person created and controlled the world, then it logically follows that when bad things happen to a person, it must be because they angered the gods. Early on it is quite likely that morality as we know it was really just a matter of doing things that contribute to the survival of the group. It is unlikely it was very complicated and in all probability was quite organic. It is also likely that gods and/or extranatural phenomena were some combination of ancestor worship and the anthropomorphizing of elements of the natural world.

As the means for sustenance changed over time, the need for increasingly complicated rules for interaction grew. As specializations emerged and with them a necessary division of labor was created things became still more complicated. It was quite natural for certain members of a society to come up with the needed rules to govern that complexity and it was equally natural for them to invoke the extranatural and even gods. It is very likely that many such people actually believed that their rules came from gods. In some cultures it was even assumed that the human makers of rules were in fact actually the gods.

The biggest problem with discussing morality in universal terms is that different people define morality differently. Moreover, people generally assume that other people define morality the same way that they do. This is often the problem with commonsensical ideas, different people mean different things while everyone assumes they are talking about the same thing. That morality means different things to different people is not in itself a bad thing. The only problem comes when two or more people are trying to communicate about morality.

For this paper, morality is defined as a governor of an individual's personal behavior when external enforcement mechanisms do not apply. In some contexts the lack of external enforcement mechanisms may be due to a lack of specific rules or laws prohibiting certain behaviors. In other contexts the lack of such a mechanism may be due to the full knowledge that an individual could commit an act that is against the governing rules or laws without detection and therefore punishment. Morality then becomes the mechanism that prevents the individual from committing acts that they believe are wrong, when they know they could get away with it.

While that definition for morality may be questioned by many, there are few definitions for morality that lack that basic concept. Differences are generally due to what a person or culture might add to that definition. Very few definitions for morality do not consider morality a governor of behavior when external enforcement mechanisms do not apply. Given this definition, no matter what might be added to it, by it's very nature it prohibits universal moral truth. Unless a person believes that no one who does not adhere to their perception of morality can possibly follow rules that are not explicit and impossible to break, then logic would dictate that they have a moral frame.

While it seems apparent that everyone, possibly excepting pathological sociopaths, has a moral frame, how morality is considered varies a great deal. The language surrounding morality varies a great deal in the contexts of time, space (geographic) and cultures. To a lesser degree the language varies by individuals as well, but ultimately it seems that culture has a rather profound influence on an individual's understanding of morality. When it comes down to the actual development of a moral frame however, the individual becomes the critical influence.

Time, space and culture in general ultimately refer to culture. Even in situations where multiple cultures exist in the same general space what results is another cultural context in which the individual cultures become changing co-cultures. Culture changes with time and space. It is not necessary to travel very far in space to find notably different cultures. The difference between an urban center and the rural areas that surround it can be significant. The difference between, for example, the United States and China is even more significant. Likewise the difference between the culture that existed in what is now Virginia two hundred years ago, was considerably different than the culture that exists there now. With these cultural differences come different ways of thinking about and talking about morality.

One of the more interesting cultural contexts to explore is that of hunter/gatherer societies. While there are bound to be significant differences between such cultures and the earliest cultures of modern humans, there are also likely important similarities. The Efe Pygmies of the Ituri forest in the People's Republic of Congo and the iKung! people of the Northern Kalahari in Batswana have very similar moral systems. It is important to note that the very concept of morality would seem very foreign to these aboriginal societies. The governor of their behavior is inexorably bound to their way of life.

While there are some minor differences in the substance of their moral frames, the frames themselves are simply the way people are expected to live. In these egalitarian social structures there is little room for dissembling. You either behave in a way that fosters the survival of the group and group harmony, or you either shamed into it, taken to the side by elders or failing those are banished. The latter being exceedingly rare because shame is a powerful tool in such small and profoundly collectivist cultures. Morality is such a foreign concept to hunter/gatherer societies simply because without a hierarchy to determine rules and/or enforce rules, individuals just generally do what they need to do to enhance the welfare of the group.

This is not to say that there aren't conflicts or behavior problems. Humans are human and all humans make mistakes or otherwise end up in conflict with others. The difference really, is that lacking a formal system of laws moral framing takes up the slack and in the facets of life where it really counts, hunter/gatherers can generally be counted on to do what is expected of them. This is a stark contrast to hierarchical societies with a complex division of labor. The more complex the hierarchy and division of labor, the less the survival of a group depends on any one member. Thus there grows room for individual members to behave in a manner that is not supportive of and even works against the survival of the group and group harmony.

Both Korean and Japanese cultures, are good examples of a developed non-western cultures that tend to have very idealized concepts of morality. The specific rules of each society are different, but they are almost entirely uniform and strictly adhered to. Globalization seems to have impacted this strict adherence to some degree, but there is a profound cultural impetus behind these moral frames so such change comes very slowly. Both collectivist cultures still have very strict rules for governing personal behavior.

In Korean culture the moral framework is focused on the family unit, ascribing fixed roles not only to husband and wife, but to the children as well. Their moral framework is very much a guide to social expectations. The consequences of deviating from this frame to any significant degree are actually very similar to the consequences found in the hunter gatherer cultures. The first level is gossip and shaming. Then comes a talk from an elder, in this case usually an older family member. Failing these, social ostracism is not uncommon and there is also a risk of being disowned by one's family.

As one explores the language and the fundamentals of morality across cultures, it becomes apparent that collectivist cultures tend to idealize morality. Morality is not seen as an individualized code of behavior. It is universally understood and the more collectivist the culture, the more it seems there is little room for personal interpretation or surreptitious deviation. This seems to hold true in the context of certain subcultures, most notably monotheistic subcultures.

Adherents to theism, especially monotheism tend to be very collectivist by nature. There are certainly exceptions, but those exceptions tend to be sub sects of various religious systems. Christianity in particular has a great deal of variation, both in time and cultural traditions. Fundamentalist sects tend to share a similar language of morality, though in this context morality is usually thought to be the literal word of God. Fundamentalist sect in this context does not describe anything about the nature of what a given sect believes. In this context it only describes the nature of the belief itself, which tends to be absolute. Fundamentalists believe that their god revealed their faith and that their moral frames are the commandments of their god.

Monotheistic moral frames carry the same rigidity of those of other collectivist cultures. They also carry similar consequences for deviation. Gossip and shame are at the top of the list. Church elders, possibly the pastor of the church will talk with someone who is or seems to be deviating. In the face of overt and unwavering defiance, many sects will banish members. There are notable differences as well, as monotheists tend to add the language of their god and divine retribution to the consequences of deviation.

The roles morality plays in collectivist cultures seems to vary by the needs of each culture and environmental impact on each culture. The language used to describe moral framing varies from virtually nonexistent to, in some cases, very strictly defined. In non-collectivist cultures it is very different. In the United States, possibly the least overtly collectivist culture on the planet, morality is far from idealized. While various individuals may idealize their own moral frame, they do not idealize a common moral frame. The lack of idealized, uniform moral framing in the U.S. and other non-collectivist cultures puts a great deal of pressure on the collectivist subcultures. This often lends itself to members of those cultures breaking away to some degree or even completely.

So where does this leave individuals who no longer identify or who never really identified with a collectivist culture group? Ultimately it leaves them where a lot of people who do identify with a collectivist culture group with a relatively strong moral frame are. It leaves them with the same choices that have to be made when external enforcement mechanisms are not relevant. While some collectivist cultures simply don't have very much room in which such mechanisms don't apply, many of them do. If morality has any more value than laws and social customs, this is where morality truly matters; as a governor for behavior in those circumstances. Everyone has to make some choices at those times and with few possible exceptions, everyone has a frame that guides their behavior.

There is a lot of discussion among skeptics, atheists and even some scientists about a perceived problem of morality. Some even argue that science could be used to find objective moral truth. Others argue that science would be better suited for exploring what inputs go into the development of individual moral frames. The social sciences seem to be the best suited for exploring morality, exploring the evolution of language, culture and cognition and their confluence into how people determine right from wrong. Ultimately the debate about just what the best avenues for exploring morality, about the nature of morality will continue for a good long time to come, continually enriching the art of being human.

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